That is the Island of the Sirens. Circe warned me to steer clear of it, for the Sirens are beautiful but deadly. –Odysseus
A mermaid found a swimming lad, Picked him for her own, Pressed her body to his body, Laughed; and plunging down forgot in cruel happiness That even lovers drown. --William Butler Yeats, A Man Young and Old, 1926
I had just finished my colleague Peg Brantley’s excellent novel, Trafficked, when a softcore porn site featuring mermaids randomly popped up on my desktop. I don’t follow pornography and find it quite depressing in general so I had no idea that mermaid porn was a thing. Evidently, it’s a big thing. Immediately, I thought of the sirens leading men to watery deaths in Homer’s The Odyssey, of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and of the Disneyfied version featuring teen mermaid Ariel. With these stories in mind, the theme of my 4th thriller, The Mermaid Broker, began to take shape.
Across cultures, we’ve always been attracted to the dangerous woman archetype. The depiction of mermaids is a great example. Beautiful, young, naked-breasted females with lush hair and seductive singing voices, trolling the seas to tempt hapless sailors away from safety--is a powerful trope. Psychologists agree that the deep-seated male fear that a woman is going to abandon them or otherwise destroy them, is universal. The mermaid world of the ocean, symbolic of the feminine, of creation and our amniotic beginnings, is the perfect setting to stoke such terrors.
Some of the earliest reported stories of mythological mer-creatures are found in Babylonian folklore from thousands of years ago. As you’d expect, cultures dependent on rivers, lakes and seas for their livelihood are particularly rife with stories of strong watery women who drown their lovers--sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. Many civilizations, however, including the Chinese, Persians and Irish, more often depicted mermaids as good-willed folk who are extremely shy but also as curious about life above the sea as humans are about life below.
Mermaid popularization went mainstream in 1837 with the fairytale The Little Mermaid written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. This story is the anti-feminist version of mermaid tales where the Little Mermaid rescues a handsome prince who stumbles overboard during a party. She returns him to the shore, falls in love with him but she must return to the sea.
Longing for the prince and an eternal soul that only humans can possess, she visits the conniving Sea Witch who sells her a draught giving the mermaid human legs in exchange for her tongue and beautiful voice. The witch warns the Little Mermaid that once she becomes a human, she will never be able to return to the sea.
Consuming the potion renders the Little Mermaid mute, yet when she recovers, she has fully human legs and is a mesmerizing dancer as well. Unfortunately, the girl will constantly feel as if she is walking on sharp knives. In addition, she will obtain a soul only if she wins the love of the prince and marries him. Otherwise, at dawn on the day after he marries someone else, the Little Mermaid will die of a broken heart and dissolve into sea foam. That’s pretty much what happens, until she wakes up sometime later on a warm beach as a “Daughter of the Air” who, because of her enduring kindness, is allowed to finally claim a human soul after putting in 300 years of good deeds.
Disney took this fable and spun it into the movie and billion-dollar marketing franchise. Unlike the original, the Disney mermaid, Ariel, doesn’t endure the knife pain curse, magically has her voice restored, and ultimately wins Prince Eric’s love. The pair marry with the mermaid’s sisters and father, King Triton, smiling approval. The bride and groom live happily ever after. In the most recent incarnation, Disney's live action remake of The Little Mermaid will bring Lin-Manuel Miranda together with legendary composer Alan Menken to hop on the Ariel bandwagon once again. Production began in December 2020.
This is a far cry from the ending of the Danish folktale where the Little Mermaid has a brutally grim life, must give up her identity and never has a ‘happily ever after’ let alone a movie deal. Perhaps this is why a new generation of female novelists are placing the mermaid archetype at the center of their fiction. The Surface Breaks, Louise O’Neill’s feminist retelling of Andersen’s fairytale; The Gloaming, “a queer mermaid love story” by Kirsty Logan; along with the The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar, which takes place in London during the Georgian 1700s, are all claiming reader interest and success.
My quirky thriller, The Mermaid Brokers, continues with a feminist interpretation of the mermaid trope. TV journalists, Bea Middleton and pregnant Lucy Vega, take the roles of the classic mermaid “sisters.” They navigate the dark net of sex trafficking in Southern California to find Isabelle, a bright young high school biology teacher who has been trafficked into an international sex tourism ring where she must become a mermaid to be exploited and murdered. Bea and Lucy marshal their resources to save the tough, smart Isabelle who has been pushed to the limit and barely survives. Isabelle doesn’t have a happily ever but she isn’t required to do good deeds for 300 years to get her soul back, either.
The Mermaid Broker by Sue Hinkin at www.suehinkin.com Mermaid Art from Many Cultures on my Pinterest Board: https://www.pinterest.com/suehinkin/the-mermaid-broker-by-sue-hinkin-2021/
Interesting Books Featuring the Mermaid Archetype in a Variety of Genres:
The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill (Irish feminist retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale) A Song Below Water by Bethany Morrow (Fantastical Black sirens, friendship and self-discovery) Sukey and the Mermaid by R.D. San Souci (Children 5-8, mermaid of color) The Deep by Rivers Solomon (Middle Grade African-American) The Gloaming by Kristy Neal (LGBTQ mermaid love story) The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Historical, UK bestseller) To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo (YA page-turner) Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox (Victorian Gothic) Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (Classic French fairytale novella) The Pisces by Melissa Broder (Contemporary women’s fiction) The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd (Literary self-discovery) The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre (Historical sci-fi, Nebula award winner) The Mermaid Broker by Sue Hinkin (Dark, quirky thriller) Ingo by Helen Dunmore (Children’s novel, mystery & magic) The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Caribbean lit) The Mermaid Handbook by Carolyn Turgeon (History, recipes, costumes and fun)
Mermaid-Themed Movies for your Viewing Enjoyment
Splash (1984) Tom Hanks & Daryl Hannah comedy
The Little Mermaid (1989) Disney animated fantasy
The Little Mermaid (2018) Is the woman in the traveling circus a mermaid?
Sabrina Down Under (1996) Teenage witch at Great Barrier Reef
The Lady in the Water (2006) M. Night Shyamalan’s fantasy psychological thriller
Aquamarine (2006) Teen romcom
Ondine (2009) Irish romantic drama where a selkie brings hope and love
Aquaman (2018) Superhero merman
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) A Bostonian and his wife catch a mermaid
Magic Island (1995) Family adventure with pirates and mermaids
Miranda (1948) Erotic Italian comedy—fisherman lands a mermaid
Neptune’s Daughter (1949) Romantic musical comedy, synchronized swimming
Peter Pan (2003) Wendy meets mermaids in Neverland
The Mermaid (2016) Chinese action adventure
The 13th Year (1999) Disney Channel—boy discovers his mother is a mermaid
Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) Most popular of the Beach Blanket franchise, romcom
Updated: Feb 24
Ten years ago, I walked into an appointment with a New York agent who liked my work, and with one look at me as I came through the doorway, my dreams of representation were history. “I thought you were a black writer. We can’t possibly sell your mystery about a black family written by a white author.” Since then, I’ve been collecting thoughts on this false assumption.
Despite Trump-era nationalism, a growing number of our planet’s inhabitants live in multi-cultural environments. And it’s only going to become more so. I can understand how it raises fear of change and disenfranchisement. White privilege is slowly on its way out. Sorry folks, all the marching in the streets with torches, chanting Nazi slogans and murdering innocent pedestrians is not going to stop it.
Embrace the future. I can’t imagine writing just about a bunch of white people. I’m white, but I’m also part of a melting pot that needs a wide variety of ingredients to serve up a world-class comfort soup.
Racial, ethnic and sexual politics are at the core of our shared history. In my Lucy Vega and Beatrice Middleton series I step inside a black woman’s head and share the things as genuinely I can—devotion to family, seeking the truth and fighting for love and justice. I chose to focus more on our shared humanity than on race.
There are no easy answers on how to write people who are not ourselves. Why should there be? Incorporating diversity has been a tough subject in society from the beginning and is only bigger and more difficult lately. As Susan Triss says this in her Sisters in Crime article Cultural Diversity in Mystery Novels: In our writing lives, I think a good start is to really listen to what people say and how they say it, to research, to question our own assumptions, and to be respectful. A caricature of any kind, a hateful name, even a stereotyped compliment, has no place in honest writing.
The author may not always get it right, but that’s life. Take the risk and open the dialogue.
In book four of the Vega & Middleton mystery/thriller series, The Mermaid Broker, Bea and Lucy navigate the dark net of sex tourism to find a young high school biology teacher before she falls victim to a disgraced ocean scientist’s sado-sexual mermaid fantasies and throws her to the sharks, literally.
She’d spent much of her life underwater. Friends even teased her about being half fish. For Isabelle “Izzy” Abbott, studying oceans and its inhabitants was her profession--but this time was different. Something was off. The taste on her lips was not the saltiness of her beloved Pacific, but the coppery tang of blood. Isabelle’s pulse rate accelerated. Pale light flickered from the darkness above. The moon? Her feet kicked hard; fingers stretched desperately toward the illumination. She followed the rise of silvery bubbles. Not too fast. The nitrogen build-up could be lethal. Where was her emergency tank?
Lungs near exploding, she broke the liquid surface, gasping for breath. Then, her hand felt something solid. Isabelle was not underwater but lying on a rubbery mat, soaked in her own sweat. When she tried to move her body, restraints bit, into her skin. Zip ties? Handcuffs? Her heart hammered like a trapped animal trying to escape its cage.
Where was she? What had happened? A car accident? Was she in a hospital? A jail? So
many questions. Isabelle forced her eyes open. Her lids were made of concrete, heavy and
gritty. The room spun. Faint, distant strains of music tinkled——discordant wind chimes accompanied by the moaning, agitated sounds of whales. What the hell? As a marine biologist, she recognized the vocalizations immediately as those of animals under grave stress. What sicko would want to weave animal misery into a song?
She gulped hard. Cool, damp air moved across Izzy’s skin and smelled of salt. Goosebumps rose. She widened her eyes, blinking, trying to acclimate. The small, square space around her appeared to have tiled walls like an operating room or a lab. It was illuminated only by a large window into a deep blue aquarium similar to those at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.
A school of dark greyish fish, hundreds of them the size of dinner plates, glided by and disappeared. Black piranhas, a South American species she wasn’t terribly familiar with. Izzy shuddered. A thin, black lateral line stretched along each body from tail to pectoral fin. It was a sensor that indicated distress in the water and a call to attack wounded prey. She held down a pang of nausea. Unable to completely focus, her head ached as if she’d been clubbed by a two-by-four. Maybe she had been. What was going on?
A body lay on a cot across from her. A girl about the same age as her biology students at Santa Monica High School. Pale skin, lank hair, face smeared with gold paint or makeup. Sleeping? Dead? Was she wrapped in a straight--jacket? Yes.
Izzy tried not to panic. Was she in a mental institution? This couldn’t be a dream, it seemed vividly real. She tried to call out to her roommate, but Izzy’s throat was so dry, all that came was a whisper. She licked her parched lips and tried again.
“Hey! Hey, over there, are you awake?”
The girl’s eyes, pallid and sunken, fluttered open. Izzy gasped, stunned by the dim pools of utter despair staring up at her. Anxiety exploded in her chest like fireworks. This was not a hospital, this was something else, something not in the realm of Isabelle Abbott’s experience.
Struggling against her bindings, the girl banged her head against the bedframe. “Help me, please help me. I can’t breathe,” she pleaded. “I’m claustrophobic, can’t handle tight spaces——this thing is destroying me.”
Isabelle winced at the aching sound of desperation in her voice. “I can’t reach you. I’m cuffed to the bed.” Again, she pulled hard against her restraints, but there was no give. “Where are we?”
The girl started to cry with big, deep sobs, then she stopped herself, slowed down, struggling for control. She gasped, “We’re in hell.”