Woman in Cabin 10 a Shipwreck


By Ruth Ware
Scout/Simon & Shuster, 352 pages

Wouldn't it make a fascinating mystery to have a female central character that thinks she has witnessed a horrible crime, but no one believes her because she's a psychologically damaged alcoholic? Oh wait; Paula Hawkins already wrote A Girl on the Train. How about a journey in which a murder occurs and one of the passengers must be responsible? You know—like Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express? Because it's the 21st century, how about a modern twist with the Internet being unavailable, like Ruth Ware's In a Dark Dark Wood? To say that Ms. Ware has cribbed the work of others (including her own) doesn't begin to get it. Nor does the term "sophomore slump." Ware's The Girl in Cabin 10 is about as close to intellectual plagiarism as one can get without being visited by a shadow of process-servers.

I adored In a Dark Dark Wood, Ware's debut novel. So did tens of thousands of others, and this might be the problem. The Woman in Cabin 10 has all of the distressing earmarks of a book written and published too quickly in an attempt to strike while the iron is hot. (For heaven's sake, the book was optioned for a movie before it got released in paperback.) Make no mistake, though, this book is a metaphorical cut-and-paste job, not homage to Hawkins or Christie. Does it matter if we replace the train with a cruise ship? First-class rail carriages with luxury liner suites? A PTSD-inducing failed marriage with a PTSD-inducing home invasion? About the only differences are that Ware replaced Hawkins' sympathetic lead with a thoroughly unlikable one, and there is no one aboard her Scandinavia-bound ocean liner with an ounce of the charm of Hercule Poirot.

Her protagonist is Laura "Lo' Blacklock, a lower-down-the-totem-pole writer for Velocity, a travel magazine for haute bourgeois toffs. She's already an anti-depressant popping anxiety-ridden mess who can't commit to her boyfriend before her sleep is interrupted by a burglar, who accidentally bops her on the noggin when she surprises him. This occurs on the eve of a press junket sail on The Aurora, a designer mini-liner of just ten cabins catering to the ultra-rich. She's not about to give up an assignment that she hopes will help her scale the totem pole, so she boards the ship against the advice of those closest to her. Her Christie-like cast is a boatload of insufferables: egoistical journalists, obsequious staff, her long ago (and unreliable) ex-boyfriend, a disbelieving security chief, and The Aurora's owner, Richard Bullmer—think an even more upscale version of Richard Branson—and his terminally ill wife. Lo starts getting sloshed, along with the other pampered journalists, and is three sheets to the wind before the cruise is even underway. She's queasy and uneasy but carries on. While dressing for dinner she discovers she forgot her mascara, so she pounds on the door of Cabin 10 and borrows a tube from a woman in a Pink Floyd t-shirt.

The novel's central mystery unfolds when Lo is catching needed late-night air on her suite's verandah when she is sure she hears a small scream and a splash from Cabin 10's adjoining deck. She's also certain she saw a smear of blood on the glass divider between the two outdoor verandahs. Lo dutifully reports this. Problem: Cabin 10 is allegedly empty due to a last-minute cancellation. Nor is there anyone missing, evidence that the cabin has been occupied, or any trace of blood. You can probably take it from there. 

It's bad enough that The Woman in Cabin 10 is (at best) a pale version of similar tales. A potboiler arc that consists of Lego-like snap-in plot devices, a whiny protagonist, a supporting cast you'd happily push overboard, histrionics, and shaky details compound the lack of originality. One wonders how any of the characters remain standing given the amount of alcohol they consume and let's just say that the mystery's final resolution rests upon some exceedingly convenient occurrences and discoveries. One might even say that the 'reveal' is obvious in a follow-the-sobriety kind of way. Alfred Hitchcock famously observed that most mysteries rest upon improbable details. The secret, of course, is to trick the audience into not seeing them. That simply does not happen in this book.

The Woman in Cabin 10 has sold well, but that does not make it an admirable work. Ware would not be the first writer pushed into a premature sequel, but one certainly hopes she rights this book's listing ship before her next novel. The fact that Cabin 10's conclusion is followed by a 'bonus' chapter from her third book doesn't inspire confidence. At some point Ms. Ware will need to decide if she wishes to be a respected 'serious' crime writer or just another hack in the pack. May her better angels triumph.

Rob Weir

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