Richard and Judy Review Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys
"There’s definitely a touch of the movie Titanic about this book; cocktails, black-tie balls and stunning sunsets. "
I loved the claustrophobic atmosphere that Rhys creates on the ship; many of the passengers are either stifled and repressed by the narrow class they feel obliged to stay within, or else impending sense of doom: the ship sets sail at the end of July and won’t dock in Australia until September, so we know world war will have broken out by the time it gets there, the passengers fearful but oblivious until they are running away from something.
There’s definitely a touch of the movie Titanic about this book; cocktails, black-tie balls and stunning sunsets. Romance is in the air – Lily falls for Edward Fletcher, smitten by his good looks and kind and gentle manner.
But death is in the air as well. Without giving too much away, by the time the ship reaches Sydney two passengers will be dead and of course the dreaded war has begun.
So who’s the murderer whose homicidal intent increasingly darkens the mood? Be prepared for a twist, and a good one. And rest assured, all the various mysteries and question marks are neatly answered and efficiently wrapped up.
A very traditional murder mystery this, and none the worse for that. The pages pretty much turn themselves and if you’re a quick reader you may well polish the novel off at a single sitting. Bon voyage!
"If you enjoy reading Patricia Highsmith and in particular, Agatha Christie, this one’s for you. "
If you enjoy reading Patricia Highsmith and in particular, Agatha Christie, this one’s for you.
As Christie so often did, Dangerous Crossing uses the classic closed room scenario, except the characters aren’t locked together inside a house or on an island – they’re on an ocean-going liner and no-one’s getting off until It docks at its destination halfway around the world.
It is 1939 and Rhys perfectly catches the spirit of the last days of peace before the second world war breaks out. Her central character is Lily, a working class girl who feels stifled and held back by the rigid English class system. She’s desperate to broaden her horizons and see something of the world, and she doesn’t do things by halves. Lily takes what was known as an ‘assisted passage’ to Australia to make a fresh start, leaving family and friends far, far behind.
So she’s a gutsy little thing. Pretty, too – and it’s obvious from the start that she has a sharp mind. Lily is a sociable creature and makes new friends easily and quickly, and before long she is breaking through those class barriers and mingling with passengers who back at home she’d never get a chance to meet. They include an impossibly glamorous couple, the Campbells, and a little lower down the social scale a middle-class brother and sister, Helena and Edward Fletcher.
But even in the comparatively free-and-easy atmosphere on board the great liner, there are mutterings of disapproval. Lily, sniff some first-class passengers, should ‘stick with her own kind’. She ignores their patronising advice and continues to go her own way – fortunately for us.
This story was inspired by a real-life account of a 1930s ocean voyage, wasn’t it?
That’s right. The idea for the book came to me after reading a memoir written by a friend of my mum’s who’d taken advantage of the government-funded Assisted Passage Scheme to travel from London to Sydney in 1938 to go into domestic service. She’d obviously kept a detailed journal of her impressions of the journey – the food, the fashions, the exotic locations visited by the ship, the various passengers she met. Then later in her life she’d typed it all up into a memoir that she photocopied and distributed among family and friends. I remember coming across this curious ring-bound document in my mum’s house and idly skimming the first page and getting this tingling feeling up my spine because I instantly knew this would make an incredible setting for a historical crime novel – all these diverse people thrown together on a journey of a lifetime, enclosed in one space, at a critical moment in history.
Congratulations on the twist at the end – we didn’t see it coming! Presumably you had it in mind throughout writing the book, so how important do you think a ‘good twist’ is?
A good story should surprise you, that’s part of the power of books. But when the surprise becomes the whole point and focus of the novel I think issues can develop. I’m not sure our current fixation on ‘the twist’ does us any favours. I’m all for books that play with readers’ perceptions and lead you into assuming one thing and then having to re-evaluate everything you thought you knew when that thing turns out to be an illusion. Clare Mackintosh’s masterful I Let You Go is a prime example. But as a reader I hate to feel manipulated. Occasionally I’ll read a book and it seems as if, instead of thinking about what works best for the plot, the author has thought, ‘What’s the most shocking thing I could do at this point?’ I think it’s important to surprise your readers, but not at the expense of the integrity of the book. The ending of Dangerous Crossing might never have worked if I hadn’t had it in mind right from the start and been sowing the seeds throughout the book.
The story is a sharp reminder of the class divisions in pre-war days. You must have made quite a study of them.
The thing about life on the ship is that it appears at first to be this tremendous equaliser. Even though the passengers are divided up by class on board, they are thrown into such close proximity during the long weeks of the voyage that inevitably class barriers end up, if not broken down, at least breached. Like her fellow travellers, Lily Shepherd assumes this to be a temporary suspension of reality, a moment out of time, and as soon as the ship docks everything will return to its natural order. But with the benefit of hindsight we know that in actual fact the war and the period of intense social upheaval that followed had a seismic effect on breaking down class barriers, and that the attitudes the Orontes passengers considered set in stone in 1939 were in fact already shifting as rapidly as the sands on the beaches they sailed past. It’s ironic then that we now seem to be returning to the old class divisions as the gap between haves and have-nots widens. Lily Shepherd would have something to say!
It’s a classic ‘closed room’ plotline, isn’t it? No-one can get off the ship until it reaches its destination, so in that sense everyone’s trapped. Do you enjoy that kind of pressure-cooker writing?
You can’t beat a good locked-room scenario – the delicious drama that comes from assembling a diverse group of strangers in an enclosed setting and then watching how they react when something terrible happens. It’s the formula behind Christie’s most famous books – Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. It’s also the model beloved of makers of disaster movies. Setting a book on board a ship that the reader knows from the outset has been the scene of a crime gave me several in-built advantages as writer. Firstly, the atmosphere is automatically intensified when you have a limited cast of characters who have no means of getting away from each other. And at the same time they are all equally suspect. Any one of them could have the motive and the opportunity to have done this terrible thing. And because they’re strangers to each other, you have no idea who is telling the truth and who is pretending to be something they are not. Or if they’re likely to strike again. One of the characters in my book says, ‘On a boat like this, everyone is running away from something’. Much of the suspense of the closed-room mystery for both reader and writer lies in trying to unlock the various characters’ secrets before tragedy strikes again.
- Examine Lily’s reasons for leaving London for Australia.
- The characters are all forced together on the liner – how do you think that this affects the way they act and react to each other?
- The novel perfectly evokes the 1930’s. How does the author bring the period to life?
- Dangerous Crossing asks lots of questions about class. Do you think that class is still an issue in contemporary society?