This title should come with a health warning – particularly if you love cruises or are intending to take one in the near future. The warning: do not take this book with you. It’s terrifying and the terror starts on the very first page. Be prepared.
When I say book, I mean audiobook, or more accurately audio dramatisation. Fitzek has written a special script of his novel (not yet translated into English), in which traditional narrative is interspersed with acting dialogue and sound effects. I quite enjoyed it even if the sound effects felt a bit forced and obvious at times. (If I listened to more radio dramas, this probably wouldn’t have been the case.) Nevertheless, this, my second outing with Fitzek, was as compulsive an experience as my first.
The basis of the tale is this fact: Each year 23 cruise ship passengers or crew are lost at sea (most disappearances are explained as suicides). Among this number, in Fitzek’s world, are the wife and son of Martin Schwartz, who were lost 5 years previously in what was explained at the time as a murder-suicide. Since then Schwartz has been careless with his own existence, undertaking the most dangerous undercover missions for the Berlin police. Each mission more sordid than the next and Fitzek does not spare on the details.
It’s a relief when Schwartz receives a phone call from someone claiming to know what happened to his wife and child. The only catch is that he must meet her on The Sultan of the Seas – the very ship on which his family were lost.
Fitzek has said the following: “Every year cruise ship passengers disappear without a trace. Shipping companies claim, almost reflexively, that these are suicide cases, but many people have legitimate doubts about the validity of this – to the point where there are now law firms in the United States that specialize in this area. During my research I realized that cruise ships actually provide the backdrop for a perfect crime – a place with no police; surrounded by ocean – where evidence can disappear forever; but it’s also a world populated by ambitious people, keen to preserve the glossy image associated with luxury liners”.
This is the world which Martin Schwartz encounters while on his personal crusade.
There are times when he wishes he hadn’t. Heavens, there were times when I wish he hadn’t. I thought the details of his land missions were bad enough – though I have no doubt that these are similarly based on unwelcome facts about our world. What’s happening on the sea is the stuff of nightmares. Another mother and child went missing, and the company explained their deaths in the usual way. However, the severely traumatised child has since reappeared and is now being held captive below decks until the company works out how to save face (which may or may not involve killing her). Unbeknown to all, however, the mother is still alive. She’s well-hidden and being systematically and sadistically tortured elsewhere. It is horrendous but her experience is key. When the links between her and Martin’s wife become clear, you really have to hope that Nadia didn’t meet the same fate.
This is crime combined with full-blown horror. Gruesome certainly, and not my normal cup of tea. Yet I kept on listening. Fitzek knows how to hold his audience.
He’s also persuaded me that my natural disinclination to take a cruise is a wise one.