Last fall, Edgar Award-winning author and borg contributor Elizabeth C. Bunce released In Myrtle Peril, the fourth novel in her Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery series. Inspired in part by the real-life lost ship Mary Celeste, which saw its 150th anniversary at the release of In Myrtle Peril, Elizabeth incorporated into her mystery a lost ship called the Persephone, a British brigantine whose small crew of 10 goes missing along with the captain’s lifeboat, including the young daughter of the captain, as with the Mary Celeste.
I spent a year reviewing Elizabeth’s story, the single surviving image of the Mary Celeste, and brigantines from Myrtle Hardcastle’s era in England, in order to create a model of the Persephone, as the Persephone is not only the lost ship of the novel, but a model ship that rests on the desk of the local magistrate, a relative of the lost captain–the Snowcrofts–including their young daughter, who may have showed up in town after all these years seeking to claim her legacy.
A sketch of the ship (by cover artist Brett Helquist) is seen at the front of each chapter, as well as on the corners of the book’s cover.
I built the Persephone using the Zvezda 1:100 scale British brigantine, a plastic ship that I upgraded with wooden tackle, rigging, and fabric sails to match similar era vessels to the Persephone, using hundreds of photographs as resources, and one striking image in particular.
Come with me on a voyage to build the Persephone, using classic books Charles D. Davis’s The Ship Model Builder’s Assistant (available here) and Colin Riches’ Ship Models from Kits (available here), and Elizabeth’s In Myrtle Peril (available here) as guides…
The British brigantine Persephone is an upgrade to the Zvezda Brigantine 1:100 scale model kit, using an image of the real-life brigantine Leon to create a vessel that matches the descriptions of the lost ship Persephone in the novel In Myrtle Peril, while incorporating its parallels to its inspiration: the American brigantine lost ship Mary Celeste.
The Mary Celeste has left behind only one photograph of the vessel, but the vessel Leon is not only a similar class ship, the extant photograph that survives has stunning detail. I used this detail, including rigging and proportions, in upgrading the Zvezda model.
First, you need the Zvezda Brigantine 1:100 scale model kit, seen here, and available at your local hobby shop. You’ll want the colors listed in the kit (I recommend Tamiya acrylics) and the Tamiya weathering paint powder sets to enhance the realism. These are all the colors I used:
I added a Master Replicas blue I had handy to the hull brown to try to replicate the metal brown color you find along train tressels and bridges (see the edges of the cover of In Myrtle Peril for the tone of purple you’re looking for), also for one of the hatches. You’ll also want a bag of Model Shipways wooden 3mm deadeyes, plus a few dozen of 1-3 different wooden braces and blocks, a set of small vintage-style decals, easiest to get from an HO-scale train-type product. The upgrade also replaces the plastic sails, using the included molded plastic as a form to shape realistic, windblown fabric sails. For those you’ll want a near-sheer off-white cloth fabric (I used linen dyed with coffee).
For rigging you’ll want to find black and rope-colored embroidery thread that is stronger than what comes in the kit (I used Sulky 12-weight cotton). Finally, you’ll want to get two lengths of slightly different chain to attach the anchors and reach out to the end of the bowsprit.
If you want 1:100 scale figures to represent the crew, you’ll find it difficult. I looked at models across the globe and nothing worked for me. So I picked up HO scale figures from three figure sets to represent everyone noted in the novel, except the little dog Charley.
The books noted above are worth reading cover to cover to improve your model building and learn more about the functions of 19th century seafaring vessels. They are available inexpensively at the above links on Amazon.
I studied details in stereograph and other images to get close to the look and feel of a vessel built in the 1870s. Many of the weathering ideas I incorporated originated with my father, who I watched build the classic Revell 1:96 scale Cutty Sark model 40 years ago when he was about my age, and a similar, smaller scale Revell Constitution I built a few years later.
If you haven’t painted a kit like this before, note that you want to paint as much as you can on the plastic trees before assembling. Weathering is the most fun and biggest part of a build like this (although the rigging is the most difficult and time-consuming). This project took five months to complete from the first day of painting to the final day of rigging.
Note how the tallest mast piece in the below photograph does not have a clear cut point. Some of every model build is extrapolating and experimenting. Sometimes that involves breaks and re-working. Some builders swap out plastic masts for wood. Although the plastic is somewhat brittle, I used the plastic without any breaks.
It’s useful to note the Zvezda Brigantine 1:100 scale model uses the molds from a Heller kit from the 1970s. What this means is that you should track down the Heller instructions here, which I viewed as better than Zvezda’s, and it also means the plastic trees don’t seem the highest quality you might have found with the original kit. The biggest thing to watch for is trimming down the masts, which do not have clear detachments on the Zvezda kit. I’ve seen many people posting photos of their completed kit with a wonky disparity between the masts, reflected in poor rigging.
The hull coloring below the waterline mimics the purple tone from the book cover and the real color of worn and distressed painted metal as seen on these ships.
Use tape to create the white trim line.
The decks are the most fun to paint. Weather it with a mix of acrylic and powder to mimic aged wood. Save the darkest color for last, and experiment with wiping cloth so the dark colors (here a dark brown) seep in between planks to make each board pop. Use vintage photographs like this as reference:
For windows, instead of using individual plastic windows provided in the kit, I swapped product packaging plastic, glued with Testor’s and supported behind with toothpicks.
Check out this image from the International Museum of Toys and Miniatures. It is only about two feet long. I visited the museum as inspiration when working on ship details.
I also visited the Arabia Steamboat Museum, where you can learn what parts of the ship don’t require a lot of paint detail:
See here on the model:
I carved extra holes in the deck to house lighting to illuminate deck structures and create ease in placing the chains to the anchors. (I bought a bag of LEDs that twist on and off at the Dollar Tree for $1).
The lifeboats, of course, play a key role in the story of both the Mary Celeste and the Persephone.
To subdue the LED light bulb, I flipped this housing:
And painted the interior a reflective gold to achieve the light color I was after.
Photographs of period ship equipment from an 1850s ship museum here:
…resulted in details like buckets with rope handles, seen here:
Here is more deconstruction work:
Each new component added starts to bring the vessel to life:
Painting vertical boards a darker color is one way to pull details from the plastic molds.
Like the old rule “measure twice, cut once,” you want to place objects several times before gluing them down.
Because the lifeboats are so important in the story of the Persephone, I decided to add individual rope details, using a good facsimile thread:
The result was exactly what I was aiming for.
Weathered storage boxes and ladders help.
I used an HO-scale set of wet decals to form the word PERSEPHONE on the stern. The HO decals have the right typeset, since many railroad signs used this vintage style. You can see similar use on the back of this stereoview, blown up like no one in the 19th century was able to see with the naked eye:
The chains need threaded before rigging, but they do get in the way a lot. The final step is coming back and resetting the anchors and stretching one of the chains to the stem.
The first big upgrade of this kit is cutting thin, white linen to exactly match the kit-supplied plastic sails. After the stitching is applied to create seams to match the real thing (see the Leon detail), you soak each sail in water with a white glue mixture, then leave on the plastic “mold” overnight to dry. They slip off easily and mimic both the puff of the sail and wind impressions.
It takes weeks to get all the rigging done. You will create thousands of individual knots to create all your ratlines from scratch.
Take care when setting the masts. The instructions contemplate not gluing these down. I didn’t think the kit seemed secure enough to not glue them down.
This is when you begin adding decorative tackle. I matched these closely to the Leon photo study.
A dot of glue keeps down much of these that do not bear any stress. Note that I secured the yard arms with extra thread and glue, since I knew prior ship kits I’d worked on had snapped over time. It’s not pretty but it holds.
The above is the first placement, checking for overall look. This is the time to paint detail on the belaying pins, which will actually hold a lot of “rope” later. Also, take care when gluing on the tiny rails and rope attachments. These will hold much of the weight of the sails.
More sail set-up detail:
Next up is the more difficult rigging:
Start by using clove-stitching to secure the rear sails. My lower yard arm “boom” was too high, and the rigging at the top “gaff” arm was so tight once finished I could not undo it. Try to get the arm to be parallel to the deck. It’s a challenge with this kit and fabric sails.
Note how those ropes match the Leon!
From here on it’s all about doing some deadeye work, followed by ratline work. I found that going back and forth alleviated some of the tedium.
You can also spend hours and days adding support ropes. Both books describe their important use to real ships.
Use the supplied ratline frame to build your lines. Note that the original Heller kit included a working tool, and the Zvezda kit supplies only the unmovable frame.
The top ratlines shown above are more difficult than the more visible ratlines that secure to the deck.
Once set with knots and dots of glue, use a clamp to tie on deadeyes, and then further secure these with matching black ropes and dots of glue.
Add the rope-colored thread to replicate ropes from photographs.
The books are both invaluable for securing deadeyes to the brittle deck pieces and rigging them together. I swapped in some black, thin beading wire for this step. It’s hardly noticeable from a few feet away.
Some features pop more than others, so spend more time on the most visual elements.
Buy a bag of deadeyes, as you will use several:
One of my deck rail inserts snapped. The ship doesn’t contemplate real rigging! So do the best you can as you make your own modifications.
When you start tying all the rigging together, it will look like a mess. That means you’re doing it right!
Check the ship from all views.
The more patient you are, the better the result.
If you notice a detail in photographs that is missing in the kit, add it! Vintage ships used green glass prisms for illumination below decks (one had literally dozens in its deck) and so I used tiny chips of green plastic from a Makit-Bakit kit to mimic them in the deck, shown above.
Tying the ratlines to individual ropes requires your own judgment. You just need to eyeball it based on photographs of real ships and get as close as you can.
Adding individual sails is less difficult. Use black beading wire for horizontal support ropes. They are held on by trusty clove hitch knots.
More chaos in securing the lines:
After you secure the four deck rails that hold the deadeyes, add the black vertical slats that mimic the chains and metal supports that hold the ends of the ratline ropes over the sides of the ship.
Note how they are roughly parallel to the ropes above.
Testing of mast placement:
The port main mast rigging is secured, to be neatened later.
Securing the corresponding starboard main mast rigging.
Time to add the ropes to the bottom of the sails, to be lashed to the deck.
The push and pull of the masts mean you need to continue to “true-up” rigging as you go, even as it settles in weeks later. I had to balance striving for perfection with stopping at some point before the tiny parts snapped. Ideally you want the rigging as tight and straight as possible.
Rig the main mast to the bowsprit, but don’t tie it off yet.
Test fit the rigging before adding the final sails.
Securing the ropes to the deck is more fun than it looks, especially when using the blocks and deadeyes as they are intended.
Use basic knots to lash each rope to the deck or the masts, all per the instructions–which are very good for this step.
Check ropes for geometry.
This photograph shows how busy the rope attachments at the belaying pins are in real life (I have yet to add the masses of looped ropes to the bulwarks or bulkheads, which can be made by rolling them on pencil ends and dotting with glue):
The last step is getting the chains to match the diagrams in Davis’s book. Note that Davis actually worked on these ships in the 1800s, and wrote the book on modeling in part because of all the famous artists that drew ships that didn’t come close to getting the rigging and other details correct!
The final ship:
On a desk like the model of the Persephone in the novel:
With the chains attached and coordinated with the anchors on each side.
Add the crew and captain’s family figures from the HO-scale train catalog:
For fun, I mocked up some vintage ephemera. Like the Persephone added to a vintage stereocard image:
Colored like a vintage photograph:
… or added to a frame as a keepsake:
And that’s it–five months of hobbying!
This year Elizabeth has been honored by being a finalist for the third time for the Agatha Christie Award at Malice Domestic, a mystery genre conference being held this week in Bethesda, Maryland. In Myrtle Peril joins Elizabeth’s novels Premeditated Myrtle and Cold-Blooded Myrtle in receiving this distinction. Publishers Weekly referred to the Myrtle Hardcastle mystery series as “the best thing to happen to youth mysteries since Trixie Belden.” The Wall Street Journal said “Younger Holmes fans (and older ones too) should be charmed by Elizabeth C. Bunce’s Cold-Blooded Myrtle.” The Buffalo News called Premeditated Myrtle a “hugely entertaining, well-crafted Victorian whodunnit.” The Kansas City Star called Premeditated Myrtle “loaded with energy that propels the reader forward in the tradition of all the most addictive of children’s books mysteries.”
From Elizabeth’s publisher:
Myrtle Hardcastle—twelve-year-old Victorian Amateur Detective—returns to investigate the case of a missing heiress lost at sea, an inquiry that runs aground when a murder in plain sight has no apparent victim. When a mysterious girl attempts to stake her claim to the Snowcroft family fortune, Myrtle Hardcastle’s father, a lawyer, is asked to help prove—or disprove—the girl’s identity. Is this truly Ethel Snowcroft, believed to be lost at sea with her parents, or a con artist chasing a windfall? Mr. Hardcastle’s pursuit of the case takes a detour when he’s hospitalized for a tonsillectomy—only to witness a murder. Or does he? With no body at the scene, Myrtle and her governess, Miss Judson, fear the so-called murder was a feverish delusion—until a critical piece of evidence appears.
But where’s the victim? And who at the hospital could be harboring murderous intent? Myrtle is determined to find out before the killer comes after her father. With stakes this high, her sleuthing has put Myrtle, her family, and the patients and staff at the Royal Swinburne Hospital In Myrtle Peril.
In Myrtle Peril is available in hardcover, eBook, and in an audiobook performed by Knightfall TV series actress Bethan Rose Young. All of Elizabeth’s books are available at Amazon here, including foreign language editions. Elizabeth just completed her tenth novel and fifth novel in the Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery Series, Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity, coming later this year. Learn more about her series and industry reviews of Elizabeth’s books here. The series is published by Algonquin Young Readers, a division of Workman Publishing Company/Hachette. Artwork and design for the series is created by Brett Helquist (A Series of Unfortunate Events), Laura Williams, and Carla Weise. Check out Elizabeth’s reviews of books and movies at borg here.
C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg