Phryne Fisher, lady detective of Melbourne Australia, is in the midst of a spell of two weeks with nothing to do when she receives a telegram from a shipping line asking her to investigate a series of jewel robberies onboard a small ship called the Hinemoa. There have been four thefts on board the ship, from diamonds to a ruby, pearls and emeralds, and while the guests have blamed the workers, everyone has been searched, to no avail. The company asks Phryne to come investigate, and makes her accompany the ship in one of the two largest first class cabins. Phryne takes her maid, Dot, along with her for companionship, and goes to the ship in question.
There, she meets with Thomas Green, the ship's steward, who gives her a magnificent item with which to fool the jewel thieves, a massive star sapphire to use as bait. Phryne takes the gem, which must assuredly be paste. Phyrne gets the admiration of the staff for her liking for strong coffee, and her willingness and ability to listen to the people working on the ship, as well as for her good looks and clever mind.
As she slowly settles into shipboard life, she gets to know the group of guests who keep returning to the ship. First there are the Wests, the wife who ogles Phryne's jewel with avid greed, and makes eyes at all the men while her husband stews and stares daggers at any man who dares look at his wife. Albert Forrester, a photographer with an avid eye for the female form, the Cahills, who are retired foresters, Vivian Aubrey, an old man who has spent his life mostly in the Orient, and his niece, Miss Marjorie Lemmon. Professor Applegate- a old lady who studies Maori culture, and Jack Mason, a young man at sea to spite his father, who made him give up playing football and wants him to settle down. But he decided to spite his father by doing nothing, and doing a rather expensive lot of nothing. And the Singers, an abusive husband and a beaten-down wife, who tries her best to placate him and he won't be placated.
As Phryne sails on the S.S. Hinemoa, she is certainly aware that someone is after the stone she's been entrusted with, known as the Maharaja, the Queen of Sapphires (at least, in the story she has been given about it). First, her cabin is searched, and then the bag she takes swimming with her. When she finally wears the stone to a dance, she has Dot sew the necklace lightly to her dress, and feels a tug on it in the middle of her dancing, but thanks to the necklace being sewn to her dress, the thief is unsuccessful in stealing the gem.
But who is the thief? Phryne can't be sure, but the attempts to steal the Maharajah become more frightening. Once, when she is swimming, her gown is thrown over her, and she is searched before being thrown back in the pool, and she nearly drowns before her own quick thinking saves her. How does the thief keep getting in to her stateroom, even when the door is locked and a chair thrust up under the doorknob? Dot is also attacked, drugged and knocked out. Then, during the night of the costume ball on board ship, Jack Mason is killed by a man who pushes him over the side with a grappling hook.
Phryne had better act fast to corral not only the killer, but the thieves behind the thefts... if she can find them. But can she uncover the killer and the truth behind the thefts and the killing before she ship makes her final docking point, and before she or Dot is killed in pursuit of either case?
I very much enjoyed this book, although I did wonder why it was called "Death by Water", when there was no death until almost 3/4 of the way through the book. Not knowing who it was who was set to die certainly kept up the tension throughout the book, as I wondered if perhaps Dot was going to be the one to take a fall- and how angry that would make Phryne would be a fearsome thing to behold!
But no, it wasn't Dot, but someone else, and while the person who died wasn't the nicest, neither did they deserve to die. The other concern, of course, is the thief, and who he or she (or they) is/are. And when the reveal comes, it's not that much of a shock, except that the thief/thieves had an iron-clad alibi for one of the thefts. But how did they get into Phryne's cabin? That's a caper that gets solved by one of the ship's cats- although we aren't aware of that for several chapters.
This is a very enjoyable book. Tension is kept up throughout by wondering who, how and when the murder will occur amidst the attempted thefts and attacks on Phryne and Dot. My favorite part of the novel came at the very end, when Phryne returns the paste Star Sapphire to the man who gave it to her, and suddenly realizes what it really is. An effective scene that just rounded out the pure awesomeness of the book. Highly recommended.