The Woman in Cabin 10 is the highly anticipated second novel of Ruth Ware who is back with another snappy crime thriller, this one set on a luxury cruise. This novel is set on a boutique cruise liner which consists of only 10 cabins complete with all the bells and whistles a cruise like this entails – snazzy settings, chandeliers, buffets, and over-the-top amenities. The premise revolves around Lo Blacklock, a travel journalist who gets a once in a lifetime opportunity to go on board the lavish cruise liner, Aurora, as a replacement for one of her senior colleagues. She is determined to milk this opportunity for all it’s worth in order to improve her future career prospects.
However things get off to an uneven start for her as she gets burglarized and assaulted at her house one day before her travel assignment, which leaves her feeling traumatised and disoriented. This disconcerting feeling continues as she boards the ship. The luxury cruise carries a choice group of who’s who including a renowned model, big-time investors and a photographer. Also on board is Ben, Lo’s old flame, who also works as a travel journalist. Initially, Lo is completely mesmerized with all the razzmatazz of the cruise and it takes her a while to get her bearings.
To take the edge of her agitation, instilled by the burglary attempt and the subsequent police investigation, Lo overindulges in the food and drinks on offer, which she later comes to regret after she is abruptly woken from her deep slumber by a scream from the adjacent cabin followed by a loud splash. Lo investigates and alerts the head of security but her claims are met with scepticism, which is not surprising considering that Lo was inebriated, exhausted and disturbed by her previous housebreaking experience when she hears the commotion. The case gets more baffling when she discovers that all the passengers on the luxury cruise are accounted for and there was never any record of the eponymous Woman in Cabin 10. An incidental encounter with the woman the previous night makes Lou stand her ground as she tries to piece together evidence of her existence.
This book has drawn a lot of comparison to Agatha Christie’s works, specifically Murder on the Orient Express. The Woman in Cabin 10 is a locked-room mystery, much like Christie’s work but for me the similarities end there. While Christie’s crime fiction is mainly centred on a detective who is distinctly detached from the felony committed, Ware’s protagonist is deeply entwined in the crime. In fact, in a way, Lo perpetuates the ramifications of the crime that serves to propel the narrative later on. This makes for an introspective narration that is quite different from that of the classic detective fiction.
Lo is anything but objective; she makes for a confounded protagonist and her deductions are flawed, prone to vacillation. Her method of getting to the bottom of the mystery is by employing trial and error methods rather than by logical inferences that are preferred by Christie’s sleuth. However, even though her character comes across as slack and unlikeable at times, it provides a sense of credibility to her narration by making it more relatable.
The story is interspersed with newspaper clippings and emails of Lo’s friends and family, which gives us an insight into how the curious events leading to the climax are interpreted by people back home. The descriptive passages delineating the cloistering confines of the ship are finely wrought and evoke a palpable sense of claustrophobia that compliments the suspense of the plot. Some inexplicable episodes and strange goings-on which seem to implicitly warn Lo against digging deeper adds further intrigue to the mystery.
Ware deftly builds up the suspense to a gratifying crescendo which is sustained by a taut narrative. I did had a few minor niggles about the plot. For one, I felt that the climax of the book was revealed a tad early, which resulted in a slightly drawn out denouement. Also, some plot twists later were a bit far fetched and required some suspension of disbelief. However, credit is due to Ware’s compelling storytelling, which made these occasional missteps seem like minor quibbles rather than jarring loopholes.
This is a quick, entertaining book and fans of Sophie Hannah and Rosamund Lupton are in for a treat. Ware takes the familiar unreliable narrator trope and makes it work for her by employing brisk narration and well etched out characters that make for an enjoyable read.
The Woman in Cabin 10 was published by Harvill Secker on 30th June 2016.