By Ian G. Wilson
I’ve always been captivated by the romance and adventure of the high seas, but I confess to being an armchair sailor. My closest experience to being on the water was when I purchased a complete boat-in-a-box as a teenager, and with ample help from my dad, assembled a lapstrake sailing dinghy. I rowed it out onto Richardson Bay, near my hometown of Mill Valley, California, and I thought it was a grand experience. But I quickly lost interest, and the boat has been sitting under a tarp in my parents’ yard for the past thirty years.
I don’t even know if I get seasick. I’ve taken ferries across San Francisco Bay and a hovercraft across the English Channel, but I’m told by those who have more experience in such matters that these are nothing like being out on the open ocean. Still, I think a cruise on a luxury liner to one of the colder climates would be a fine travel adventure. Perhaps someday I will screw up the courage (and the money) to find out.
But not on the Aurora, the ship featured in Ruth Ware’s new thriller, The Woman in Cabin 10. For our narrator, Laura Blacklock, the dream cruise turns into a nightmare, the only witness to a murder and soon on the killer’s list of next victims. All of the over-the-top amenities on the exclusive liner aren’t enough to ease her mind after what she has seen, and she doggedly insists on discovering the truth even when it is clear that she is putting herself in great peril.
Sounds like a recipe for a page turning mystery, doesn’t it? It is indeed, though readers should be forewarned that, despite claims on Amazon, this book is not reminiscent of the works of Agatha Christie. Readers shouldn’t expect Christie’s sophisticated touch or the sense of a travelogue through geographical areas of historical interest in Death on the Nile. The setting is the ship itself, and it is downright claustrophobic. The Woman in Cabin 10’s success hangs on Ware’s ability to develop suspense, rather than on a particularly clever mystery.
Blacklock is a travel writer for a high-end magazine, and has scored a coup in getting the chance to cover the maiden voyage of the Aurora, a relatively small passenger liner with only ten cabins. The ship is the brainchild of Lord Richard Bullmer, who hopes to charge a small fortune for the privilege of seeing Scandinavia and the Northern Lights in complete luxury. Bullmer is a mystery figure, appearing very little in the novel. The other passengers are not particularly well drawn; I had trouble keeping them apart. Several do have one or two peculiarities of character which make for some interesting scenes, however. The following is a snatch of dialog among Blacklock, Ben Howard, her former lover who is also on the ship, and the corpulent gourmand, Alexander:
Then I realized both Ben and Alexander were waiting for me to speak, and I stammered, ‘Oh, yes, remember, Alexander? You were telling me about fugu.’
‘Of course. Such a thrill. I do think it’s one’s responsibility to wring every ounce of sensation out of life, don’t you? Otherwise, without that, it’s just a short, nasty, and brutal interlude until death.’
He gave a broad, slightly crocodile-like smile, and hoisted something beneath his arm. It was a book; a volume of Patricia Highsmith, I saw.
‘Where are you off to?’ Ben asked casually. ‘We’ve got a few hours free until dinner now, I think.”
‘Don’t tell anyone,’ Alexander said confidentially. ‘But this color isn’t entirely natural.’ He touched his—now that he mentioned it—rather walnut colored cheek. ‘So I’m off to the spa for a little touch-up. My wife always says I look better with a color.’
Blacklock is a nervous heroine. She is an alcoholic, prone to panic attacks, takes medication for depression, and has recently suffered a break-in at her apartment which has left her seriously on edge. Though I liked the book, I felt myself longing for the days when the protagonist would have been plucky and sophisticated. Even a little humor would have gone quite a way in making her easier to put up with. Perhaps her psychoses are more realistic than the eccentricities of Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes, though it is hard to see her as much of a detective since she spends so much time wallowing in pools of self-pity and paranoia.
The central question in The Woman in Cabin 10 is whether or not there is a woman in Cabin 10 and whether she was thrown overboard in the middle of the night. Blacklock, in the adjoining cabin, is certain she borrowed makeup from her neighbor, and is the only person to hear the splash when the woman is tossed into the North Sea. According to everyone else on board, though, Cabin 10 has never been occupied, and the woman our narrator claims to have seen doesn’t fit the description of any of the passengers or crew. Blacklock presses her case to the point that the other seafarers begin to think she is losing her mind.
As I mentioned, there is precious little in the way of natural scenery to enhance the setting, but Ware does an excellent job developing details of the human contrived quarters that the characters find themselves in. Take these lines, for instance, describing Blacklock’s trip into the crew quarters of the ship:
We emerged into a cramped corridor that had a completely different feel to the passenger part of the ship. Everything was different—the ceiling was lower, the air was several degrees hotter, and the walls were closer together and painted a dingy shade of beige, but it was the lights that made me instantly claustrophobic—dim and fluorescent, with a strange high-frequency flicker that made your eyes tire almost at once.
Ware was born in Sussex in 1977, and her previous novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood is a similarly taut best-selling thriller, and has been optioned for film. It appears that is the destiny of The Woman in Cabin 10 as well, as the movie rights have already been secured. Not bad for a writer who has published only two books (a third one is scheduled to be released in 2017).
If you are looking for a worthy successor to a classic exotic mystery with nautical touches such as Elizabeth Peters’ The Crocodile on the Sandbank, you won’t find it here, nor will you see any great literary merit in the text or characters. However, for a fast-paced summer read with enough plot twists to keep things interesting, The Woman in Cabin 10 is ideal.
The Woman in Cabin 10 was published by Scout Press in 2016. It is available now at Greenville Public Library.