A Dangerous Crossing

Written by Rachel Rhys — Late July 1939. A young woman named Lillian Shepard boards the Orontes, docked at Tilbury in Essex and set to sail for Australia.

She has assisted passage to work in Australia as a domestic servant. Her family sees her to the cabin she’ll share with Audrey and Ida. Her parents are sad to see her go and she is conflicted about her trip, which is meant to ensure her safety in unsafe times. As they set sail, you’ll feel for Lilly and her family, and sense the weight of war gathering like a storm.

A Dangerous Crossing is a stylised read from author Rachel Rhys, the pen name of a successful suspense author. It evokes the Golden Age of mystery and though set during World War II the author’s modern sensibilities add an assured and contemporary touch to a nostalgic genre piece. Rhys based the book on a diary she found when helping her mother move, which chronicled a real-life passage made by a young woman during the War. The author uses the resource well and the book comes off as alive, authentic, and historically grounded.

A full cast of characters awaits Lilly on board. Edward Fletcher and his older sister Helena are the next ones to befriend her. Lilly is smitten with Edward when they meet, but soon finds he might be a more complicated fellow than he lets on. She begins to pal around with a married couple, Max and Eliza Campbell, first class passengers who prefer the company on the lower decks. The ship forms a microcosm reflecting the social classes and attitudes during a period of huge change in the 1930s.

The Orontes docks at various ports and posters of Mussolini and Hitler are seen during excursions. Jewish passengers come on board, fleeing the wave of fascism sweeping the continent. The treacherous outside world starts mingling in with the salt sea air on deck.

A young Jewish woman, Maria, comes aboard looking to escape the dangers she faced in Vienna. She and Lilly quickly become friends but not everyone is so accepting and a fascist sentiment is kicked up by some in Lilly’s social circle. Rhys builds tension slowly and only hints at drama in the first half of the book, but doesn’t use any big plot twist like we’ve come to expect from mystery novels. Instead the plot is advanced through small conflicts between the characters based on class, politics and gender.

The sea air gets thicker as you read, waiting for a cataclysm to occur, but unfortunately it never quite materialises and the voyage grows monotonous. The first bit of mystery comes when Maria is assaulted in her sleep, and the perpetrator runs off before they can be identified. The book doesn’t take off here, as you’d expect, but instead drags as Lilly tries to figure out who is to blame. Rhys takes her time with the storytelling saturating the text with details and small scene after small scene. The result is a mixture of beautiful prose and mundane detail that lacks compelling action.

Characters start to reveal their true selves towards the end of the novel, a few deaths occur, and an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit narrative takes over. Many of the juiciest bits come way too late and don’t pack the wallop that makes this type of reading fun. There are some interesting and surprising twists to make the ending worthwhile and enjoyable, but perhaps not so worthy of all the prior exposition.

Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is another mystery taking place on a cruise ship, as is Passenger 23 by Sebastian Fitzek.

Doubleday
Print/Kindle
£7.99

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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