Written by Catherine Ryan Howard — Some books arrive at CFL HQ in a standard padded envelope. Others appear dressed to the nines, and that’s how Distress Signals first arrived with its custom wrapping paper, tied with a ribbon. Have a look here. Does it live up to the fanfare?
Adam Dunne is a pleasant young Irishman who dreams of being a writer. Dreams, as they say, butter no parsnips, and his live-in girlfriend Sarah keeps them both solvent working at a Cork recruitment agency. The tide may have turned for Adam, however, as he has just had a screenplay accepted, though with extensive re-writes needed, by Hollywood producers.
Sarah tells him that she has to fly to Barcelona for a few days to attend a conference, and so Adam blithely takes her to the airport, reminding her to let him know that she has landed safely. This she does, but Adam’s nightmare is just about to begin. He realises how much he misses Sarah and tries to keep in touch by text, but after the initial confirmation that she has arrived in Spain, there is silence. Howard ratchets up the growing unease a few turns at a time, taking an almost sadistic glee in describing how Adam’s certainties start to crumble. First he discovers that both her employers and parents think she is off sick. Then the hotel she was booked into in Barcelona tells him that she only stayed one night.
Despite anguished calls from his Hollywood agent, Adam tosses his precious screenplay aside and devotes every waking second to discovering what has happened to Sarah. The garda in Cork do not share his anxiety, but do identify a man on Sarah’s record of mobile calls. Sarah’s friends eventually come clean and tell Adam that she was intending to leave him, but he has received a chilling package through the post. It’s Sarah’s passport. Attached to it is a Post-it note reading: “I’m sorry – S.”
All roads lead to a massive cruise ship which plies its trade between Barcelona and the French Riviera. Sarah boarded the ship, but digital records reveal that she disembarked in Nice and never returned. Accompanied by a mysterious Englishman whose wife has gone missing in similar circumstances, Adam joins the passengers of the Celebrate for its latest voyage across the Balearic Sea, and he bristles with the knowledge that Sarah’s male contact is a crew member.
The ensuing pages are absolutely gripping as they peel away layer after layer of assumptions that Adam has made. Unless you cheat and skip ahead, you will come to the same conclusions, and you may well wonder at Howard’s audacity and confidence as she all but turns the narrative on its head.
The great tragic novels of Thomas Hardy often hinge on innocuous incidents which trigger a chain of distressing events. Think of Bathsheba Everdene’s playful Valentines card to Farmer Boldwood, or Tess Durbeyfield’s father meeting with the genealogist parson. So it is in Distress Signals. Howard cleverly lays a trail of small, separate accidents which eventually connect to bring grief, heartbreak and death to people whose lives have consequently collided.
This is evidently the author’s first venture into the world of thrillers and let’s hope Second Novel Syndrome doesn’t strike because her debut is superb. One final thing. When you get to the Six Months Later epilogue, you may be expecting a bland, loose-end-tying reflection on the gripping events you have just read about. Suffice to say that Catherine Ryan Howard saves the biggest shock for the end – literally, the last two words.
Distress Signals goes on sale 5 May. If you like the sound of it and want some more crime fiction from the Irish Republic also try Aloysius Tempo and Are You Watching Me? If the prospect of crime on board a cruise ship entices you, check out Passenger 23 by Sebastian Fitzek.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars