Five years ago Martin Schwarz, a police psychologist, lost his wife and son.
They were holidaying on a cruise ship when they simply vanished. A lacklustre investigation was unable to shed any light on what happened—murder-suicide being the coroner’s verdict.
It is a verdict that has haunted Martin ever since, blighting his life.
But then he is contacted by an elderly woman, a writer, who claims to have information regarding their fate and wants him to come on board The Sultan of the Seas immediately.
She explains that his wife and son are not the only mother and child pair to have disappeared. Only a few months ago another mother and daughter also vanished.
She believes there may be a serial killer on board.
But when the missing daughter reappears—carrying the teddy bear of Martin’s missing son—it becomes apparent that the truth could be much, much worse…
SEBASTIAN FITZEK (Translated by Jamie Bulloch)
Sebastian Fitzek was born in Germany in 1971. After attending law school and being promoted to LL.D. he decided against a juridical profession in favour of a creative occupation in the media.
After the traineeship at a private radio station, he switched to the competition as head of entertainment, becoming chief editor. Thereafter he became an independent executive consultant and format developer for numerous media companies across Europe.
Sebastian is one of Germany’s most successful authors of psychological thrillers. His books have sold over 11 million copies, been translated into more than 24 languages, and have been the basis for international theatre and cinema adaptations.
He was the first German author to be awarded the European Prize for Criminal Literature.
Sebastian lives with his family in Berlin.
Check out Sebastian’s website
Connect with Sebastian on Facebook
Follow Sebastian on Twitter
“Writing about yourself objectively has to be the most uncomfortable task for any author. I mean – to make things seem nicer and to change the truth so that it sounds interesting to the reader is just simply our job. How glad I would be to be able to make myself look like a knight in shining armour (alright, I guess you can refute that by simply looking at one of my pictures) who used to be popular early on and who was just born with the gift of being successful without ever doing anything for it”
44 per cent haematocrit
55 per cent plasma
And a one hundred per cent mess when it spurts uncontrollably around the room from a punctured artery”
CHAPTER ONE – BERLIN
“The house that was the venue for the deadly party looked like the kind of place they’d once dreamed of. Detached, with a red-tiled roof and a large front garden behind the white picket fence. Here they would have had barbecues at weekends and in summer put an inflatable pool on the lawn. He’d have invited friends and they’d have chatted to each other about their jobs, their partners’ quirks or just lain on loungers beneath the umbrella, watching the children play”
“Prison was better organised than a supermarket, with a larger selection of items and more customer-friendly opening hours. Including Sundays and public holidays”
“Martin wished he had less experience, hadn’t looked into so many empty faces to know first hand that there was no scalpel or chemotherapy in the entire world able to completely remove the cancer-like tumour that had established itself in this girl’s soul after the hell she’d been through. In such cases psychologists and doctors were like engineers in Chernobyl or Fukushima. They could never get rid of the problem altogether, merely mitigate the consequences of the catastrophe”
“Despite the imminence of her death and even though she had no idea how it would happen, she no longer felt afraid. This must be what Catholics understand by the purifying power of confession. Deep down inside her, in the shadowy world of her consciousness, she’d always sensed that her life would come to a terrible end. It must do, if an entity existed that ensured justice was done”
“Just as the battered wife stops the police from arresting the husband who beats her, Timmy’s love for his mother and fear of losing her was much greater and stronger than his fear of further abuse”
“How can I put it poetically? Time is the life jacket of truth; it always brings it to the surface”
“But let me say this again: I’m not mad. Killing is my job. Not my calling”
“There was one irrevocable truth in their business: for people to become invisible, they had to break permanently with their old habits. A gambler must never be seen in a casino again, a musician must never pick up a guitar and a sportsman never run again”
“revenge is a dish best served cold”
Okay! Where to start? – Takes a deep breath! – I can only dive right into the quagmire and hope that in my shocked and muddled state of mind, I can somehow sort this story out into some kind of joined up thought process!!
First that chilling cover and title: It is thought that if you took an average of the total number of people who ‘disappeared’ from cruise ships each year, it would equate to an estimated average of 23 people, per ship, per year. That really is quite a staggering figure and reinforces nicely my own view of not taking a holiday confined in a relatively small, potentially unsafe environment, and out on open water too! The Sultan of the Seas has so many opportunities for that ‘passenger 23’ to happen on this voyage, it runs the risk of using up not only its own, but another ship’s quota too!
That the book contains all the elements which make a good storyline work for me, is without question. The opening chapter hits the ground running and the action kicks in immediately. The storyline is well paced, although perhaps not always quite as fluidly as I might have liked. The ending is conclusive, in that all the strands of the story have been woven together in my mind, even though there were still some loose ends which hadn’t quite reached a definitive resolution, so I have to surmise eventual outcomes for those, as obvious as they may be! Oh! and I don’t like my main protagonist to end up dead, which Martin only escapes by the skin of his teeth – several times – although he is more than severely battered and bruised by the experience, and often just as confused as me, I think!
I always enjoy brave, bold, multi-faceted, gripping storylines; however any one, or maybe a couple, of the individual strong and deeply disturbing plotlines, would have made an amazing story when woven together, but there just seemed to be too much action going on for one cruise liner to deal with. Everything from child prostitution and exploitation, the warped sexual deviancy of a desperate mother, the sexual jealousy between mother and daughter; to a hired assassin, a corrupt crew who for a price will help the chosen people ‘disappear’, abduction, murder and an amateur sleuth who has just seen too much! – I’m certain I must have missed something out, but really, can you cope with hearing any more? The narrative is intense, twisted, brutally honest and pulls no punches with its gut-wrenching, jaw dropping impact, making it startlingly visual, and highly textured, almost too much so sometimes. Red herrings to put me off the scent, were used liberally, although much of the time I was too traumatised by yet another unexpected revelation, to really notice them. The dialogue is no less sugar-coated, often vulgar although not gratuitously so, direct but not as graphic as it might easily have been, however the inferences are definitely there to read between the lines. There is a real sense of time and place, as the action took me to the very bowels of the ship, an area which is totally out of bounds to all but the select few, on a ‘need to know’ basis. Non of your usual swimming pool, entertainment venues, non-stop dining and 24/7 retail therapy here. Instead, the grim mystery of those missing deck numbers, the miles of spooky, pipe and chain filled corridors and the hidden shafts which, when opened, can send you to a very watery grave.
In retrospect, I suppose that this book was equally storyline and character dominated, although whilst I was reading, it was definitely the characters who forced themselves into my mind, manipulated my thoughts and drained my emotions. There was a relatively large and sprawling cast of complex characters, who whilst they were individually well defined and developed; were totally unreliable, manipulative, raw, volatile and in no way authentic, genuine, or true to themselves. There wasn’t one amongst them who I even began to empathise or connect with, including the youngest victims of some of the most heinous crimes imaginable, although that particular disengagement might well have been the result of the long-term shock and resulting PTSD they were suffering, from the damage which had been inflicted on them, both mentally and physically.
At times I even struggled to relate to Martin Schwarz, our main protagonist and arguably the hero of the hour. Being a police psychologist and undercover investigator, has definitely taken its toll on a man who is clearly at the end of his tether, possibly even suicidal, even before this investigation begins, with his career drawing him ever deeper into a fragile spiral of self-destruction and his private life in tatters, following the assumed murder/suicide of his wife and son, some five years earlier, whilst aboard the cruise ship The Sultan of the Seas. To say that he is dour, vulnerable, emotionally starved and a physical wreck, wouldn’t be putting too fine a point on things. To then drop him onto that same cruise ship and piece by piece, strip away the final vestiges of his self-esteem, powers of reason, and almost his sanity, and it’s no wonder that he took his eye off the ball more times than he should have, whilst trying to work out exactly what was what, who was who, and who was guilty of what, in that last chance game of roulette, where everything was at stake and all was left to play for. Let’s face it, the odds of Martin ever coming out the other side at all, were well and truly stacked against him!
I don’t know what makes the psyche of so many of the German authors, along with their Scandinavian and Nordic counterparts, quite diverse and unique from that of so many of their contemporary European and American, thriller writers. Their storylines are always deep, dark, troubling and complex. Their writing style is often dour and lugubrious. That these attributes can so aptly set the scene and create that claustrophobic, richly textured atmosphere, for the amazing thrillers which they produce so readily, is totally undisputed by me. However, I felt that Passenger 23 just lost its way a little bit, compared to the many Sebastian Fitzek books I have read and enjoyed previously. Sebastian’s original script was up to its usual high standards and none of the slight lapse in plot cohesion appeared connected to the translation, which from my perspective, was as faultless as I have come to expect from Jamie Bulloch. I really do think that there was just too much going on in the plot for my little brain to assimilate!
What typically makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination and stimulate my senses. This was one hell of a rollercoaster journey for me, so I recommend you read it for yourself and see where your journey takes you – However, enter this watery world at your own peril, but definitely with an open mind – and be prepared for anything!
They do say that ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’, but in this case I think that ‘revenge is sweet’, no matter what the temperature!
A complimentary download of this book for review purposes, was kindly made available by the publisher, Head of Zeus, and facilitated by NetGalley.
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 4 out of 5 stars!
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