By Sebastian Fitzek, narrated by Max Beesley, with a cast of actors. Unless you read German, the only way you can enjoy psychological thriller-writer Fitzek’s latest book is through Audible.com, which is perhaps why it’s called “An Audible Original Drama,” though it is available in print and for the Kindle in its original language.
Passenger 23 is based on a horrifying premise that sent me straight to fact-checking: Yearly, about 23 people—crew and passengers—disappear from the world’s cruise ships IRL. The true number is unknown, because ship owners have a substantial interest in keeping these disappearances quiet and in portraying those that do come to light as suicides, even when evidence of suicide is nonexistent. And, when disappearances occur at sea, the only investigation may be carried out by a lone policeman from the ship’s often tiny country-of-registry. This investigator’s work will not be mistaken for that of Scotland Yard or the FBI. It’s a perfect set-up for criminal shenanigans.
In Fitzek’s novel, undercover detective Martin Schwartz is willing to take on the Berlin police department’s most dangerous cases, in part because he’s become less attached to his own life in the five years since his wife and young son died in an apparent murder-suicide aboard the cruise ship Sultan of the Seas. When he receives a mysterious invitation to meet an elderly woman aboard that same ship in order to find out what really happened to his family, he can’t resist.
Once aboard, he finds himself drawn into the woman’s theory that a serial killer may be loose on the ship. A young girl who disappeared from the ship some months earlier reappears, carrying the teddy bear of his drowned son. But she’s not not making sense. The girl’s mother disappeared at the same time, in a chilling echo of what happened to Martin’s own family.
Solving this puzzle would be sufficient for any book, but Fitzek also provides an early teaser-scene about a man, located somewhere in the ship’s bowels, who has consented to have his healthy leg amputated. Why, and whether this secondary (and far-fetched) story has anything to do with the principal plot, we don’t learn until the end of the book. It’s in an epilogue that, oddly, comes after the production credits—glad I didn’t turn my iPod off too soon!
For my taste, Fitzek tries a little too hard for the gruesome detail. In addition, the cluster of murder-suicides of single moms and their children has one glaring common denominator that even a police operative far from his tiny island redoubt ought to find suspicious.
As to how well this works as an audiobook, I was disappointed. Beesley had a formal, almost stiff style out of keeping with the material, and while the other actors were used only for the scanty dialog, which felt intrusive. Audible has added intermittent sound effects—feet running, doors clanging, ropes squeaking, and the like—that didn’t add to the experience. I’d just as soon let the author tell me the door slammed than having to think “What was that?” Audible has produced a short trailer for the audio version, available on YouTube.
A somewhat longer version of this review appears on the Crime Fiction Lover website.