Written by Sebastian Fitzek, narrated by Max Beesley, with a cast of actors — Unless you speak German, the only way you can enjoy psychological thriller-writer Fitzek’s latest book is on audio, which is perhaps why it’s called ‘An Audible Original Drama,’ though it is available in print and for the Kindle in the original language.
Two of Fitzek’s previous books – the 2006 debut Therapy and 2008’s The Child – are reviewed on this website. Considered a master of mind games, Fitzek deploys this technique in Passenger 23, with numerous twists and turns of plot. The novel is based on a fascinating premise, ripe for exploitation in the mystery/thriller genre, that sent me straight to fact-checking.
Yearly, about 23 people – crew and passengers – disappear from the world’s cruise ships. The true number is unknown, because ship owners have a substantial interest in keeping these disappearances quiet and in portraying those that do come to light as suicides, even when evidence of suicide is non-existent. Further, if the disappearance occurs at sea, the only investigation may be carried out by a lone policeman from the ship’s often tiny country-of-registry. His work will not be mistaken for that of Scotland Yard or the FBI. In other words, it’s a perfect set-up for criminal shenanigans.
In Fitzek’s novel undercover detective Martin Schwartz is willing to take on the Berlin police department’s most dangerous cases, in part because he’s become less attached to his own life in the five years since his wife and young son died in an apparent murder-suicide aboard the cruise ship Sultan of the Seas. When he receives a mysterious message to meet an elderly woman aboard that same ship, in order to find out what really happened to his family, he can’t resist.
Once aboard, he finds himself drawn into the woman’s theory that a serial killer may be loose on the ship and, along with the captain, the ship’s doctor, and the woman, he’s mystified when a young girl who disappeared from the ship some months earlier reappears on board, carrying the teddy bear of his drowned son. But she’s not talking. Or at least, not making sense, and her body bears evidence of sexual abuse.
The girl’s mother disappeared at the same time, in a chilling echo of what happened to Martin’s own family, and he believes it possible that the mother may be still alive somewhere on the ship. As a listener you’ll know she is indeed alive, because numerous scenes depict her travails at the hands of a tormentor she calls ‘The Spider’.
Solving this puzzle would be sufficient for any book, but Fitzek also provides an early teaser-scene about a man, located somewhere in the ship’s bowels, who has consented to have his healthy leg amputated. Why, and whether this secondary (and far-fetched) story has anything to do with the principal plot, we don’t learn until the end of the book. It’s in an epilogue that, oddly, comes after the production credits – glad I didn’t turn my iPod off too soon!
For my taste, Fitzek tries a little too hard for the gruesome detail. In addition, the cluster of murder-suicides of single moms and their children has one glaring common denominator. All “won” their trips in a sketchy online contest they don’t remember entering and received free passage. Even a police operative far from his tiny island redoubt ought to find that suspicious.
As to how well this works as an audiobook, I was disappointed. The main narrator had a formal, almost stiff style out of keeping with the material, and while the actors who played the various characters were fine, they were used only for the scanty dialog. Having another voice come into the story actually feels intrusive. Think of the difference between a sentence that reads (in a straight narration), “He ran up the stairs to the fifth deck and arrived panting. ‘Where is she?!’ he asked” versus “He ran up the stairs to the fifth deck. ‘(pant, pant, pant) Where is she?!’” It turns out that a fast-moving thriller contains a surprising amount of panting and shrieking.
Audible has added intermittent sound effects – feet running, doors clanging, ropes squeaking, and the like. Along with some characters being voiced by different actors in addition to the narrator, it makes the production much like a radio play. For me, that didn’t add to the experience. I’d just as soon let the author tell me the door slammed than having to think, ‘What was that?’
Here’s a trailer that’s been released for Passenger 23:
CFL Rating: 3 Stars