Lead Review

  • Book: Passenger 23
  • Location: The Atlantic Ocean
  • Author: Sebastian Fitzek

Review Author: Tina Hartas



It is really quite weird reading a novel set aboard a cruise ship, when most of the big vessels are confined to port in these Covid times. And, to be honest, after reading this novel, I am not inclined to start searching for an aquatic holiday when travel opens up. Heavens, Fitzek makes a large liner like the Sultan of the Seas sound like Danté’s Inferno, the roiling mass of humanity it carries, incarcerated in the luxurious bowels of this metal edifice; not to mention the criminal goings-on at the furiously pumping heart of the narrative. I think Fitzek probably isn’t really a fan of cruising.

Ships have their own rules when they are ploughing through the sea and thus a large ocean liner is the perfect setting for people to disappear and for dark deeds to go undetected. I hadn’t really given much thought to that until now. The author says that 23 people on average disappear from ships each year which is probably true (not to mention the well over 1300 shipping containers on average per annum that tip overboard during passage).

Police psychologist Martin Schwartz lost his wife and the mother of his child, overboard, on the very same boat 5 years previously (she purportedly drugged their son, lobbed his body overboard and followed him into the sea). It was classed as suicide/murder. Now evidence has come to light that a mother and daughter, who went missing more recently on the boat, have resurfaced, and it seems that the daughter was in possession of a cuddly toy belonging to Schwartz’s son…. well, the temptation to board the boat is, of course, just too great to resist and Schwartz finds himself lured onto the vessel.  Before he knows it, the engines are juddering, and the ship has left dock and has moved into the vast expanse of sea. He is now incarcerated for the duration, driven to investigate what is going on now, in the hope that he can shed more light on the ‘suicide/murder’ theory behind the deaths of his family members.

Schwartz is a ‘method’ policeman, and back in Berlin he certainly got into role. We learn what a focussed and determined man he is. Early in the novel he is on a case where he has to impersonate a deviant. In order to be authentic, he has to arrive with one of his teeth missing, so he pulls out his own tooth for accuracy 🤮. (He also has to prove to the gang he is infiltrating that he is HIV positive but that is another story). Thereafter, to be honest, the ‘vomiting face’ emoji was a regular visitor to my consciousness whilst reading this novel. I was left with the image of inserting glass into someone’s mouth and then binding the orifice shut, oh my goodness; or making someone eat tape worms in a dish of old, wriggling rice (the ultimatum being either eat the rice or starve to death) and then monitoring what happens to the worms as they develop and navigate their way through the body….just another of many gag alerts. This left me wondering whether I have I got out of the groove of reading cutting edge crime and thriller novels, where nausea-inducing scenarios are de rigueur? I don’t know the answer to this, but suffice it to say, I was glad when this novel came to its climactic end.

You will discover all manner of cruising insight. What is Hell’s Kitchen? Well, it is the room, dubbed in this instance, where people who – should they develop a contagious disease – are accommodated (locked in, shall we say), isolated with special air-con and all the prerequisites that seriously unwell people might need. But of course it is a room so cut off from the rest of the ship that it can be used for all manner of nefarious detention.

Fitzek can pen a really cohesive, gripping and warped storyline, the writing and translation are excellent. He has great reviews. I appreciated the well thought out trajectory of the narrative but ultimately this probably wasn’t a novel for me.

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