I loved the Agatha Christie-ish feel of Ruth Ware’s first thriller In A Dark, Dark Wood, so The Woman in Cabin 10, feature a similar locked room trope also caught my eye. The book begins with the heroine being robbed in her own home, and the tension just ratchets from there. Still recovering from her experience of a break-in, travel journalist Lo Blacklock is grateful for an escape, with an assignment to write a fluff piece about a luxury cruise. One night, she thinks she witnesses the woman in the cabin beside hers being thrown overboard, but when she reports the crime, she learns that all the ship’s passengers are accounted for and that the cabin beside hers was unoccupied.
Like Dark Wood, Cabin 10 provides us a narrator whom others deem unreliable, mostly because of her trauma from the break-in, coupled with heavy drinking in public and a mental health condition. I love that Ware tackles head-on how victims of crime are often judged for their own behaviour, such that their reliability is called into question. (As an aside, I also love that the promo package from the publisher included a pink tube of mascara, which plays a big part in the mystery, but is also useful to have around.)
This book is a tightly wound thriller full of twists and turns. I actually got scared reading it, and was so caught up in the story that I literally jumped at a mysterious sound in my hallway while I was reading. What I love most is that Ware adheres to the rules from the golden age of crime fiction, in particular the one that states that the writer must equip the reader with all the information necessary to solve the mystery themselves. When the big reveal was made, I re-read some of the earlier passages and realized that an important clue was indeed provided for a reader more observant than I to catch. Overall, I found this book utterly gripping, and it was a lot of fun waiting to see how it all turns out.
Q&A with author Ruth Ware
How did the idea for this book come around?
It’s funny, because for In a Dark, Dark Wood I had a really clear answer to this – I could pinpoint it to a single conversation. Whereas The Woman in Cabin 10 it’s a lot harder to pin down. I think part of it came about because I was starting the book at the same time as reviews for In a Dark, Dark Wood were beginning to appear. Many of them made reference to Agatha Christie and the way she wrote such excellent “closed room” mysteries. I suppose it got me thinking about her most famous settings – Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, And Then There Were None, and so on. She does that feeling of stifled luxury so well – where her characters are somewhere really beautiful and luxurious, but also terrifying! A cruise felt like a natural way to pay homage to that type of setting – somewhere incredibly glamorous, but at the same time, you can’t get away.
The other element was that while I was writing, there were a lot of he said / she said cases in the news, and it got me thinking about how society looks at different kinds of witnesses and the way some kinds of evidence are given priority over others. It seemed to me that young women – and particularly young, drunk women – were right at the bottom of the pile in terms of how courts and the police viewed their evidence. I wanted to write a narrator who fitted that bill and maybe force people to question their own preconceptions in how they evaluate what Lo sees.
What is it about a cruise ship that makes it such a great setting for a murder mystery?
Well aside from all the Christie-ish locked room stuff above, it’s a naturally dangerous setting. You have a built in way of getting rid of bodies, which is incredibly hard to trace, and no law enforcement at hand. There is also the grey legal area that Lo talks about in the book – the way that crimes committed in international waters are very muddy in terms of whose responsibility they are to investigate and prosecute. You can have a situation where a Swede is suspected of killing a Spaniard, off the coast of Morocco, owned by a British company, sailing under a Panamanian flag. In that scenario it would usually be Panama who would be responsible for investigating, even though they are thousands of miles apart.
The danger Lo faces at sea is heightened by her dependence on prescription medication. How did you research this aspect of Lo’s character?
I’m lucky that I know a few medics who were able to advise on likely dosages and types of treatment, but I also found message boards and forums invaluable for giving first hand insight into how different people react to withdrawal and so on.
Without giving too much away, there’s a fairly elaborate scheme at the heart of this mystery. I’m curious about your process — how did you plot it all out? (e.g. did you write out the scheme in advance in post-it notes? Or did you work backwards and try to fill in the various questions logically as they arose?)
I had the basics of it plotted out – nothing elaborate like post-it notes, just an A4 outline of how the plot would pan out – but the ending surprised me and meant I had to go back and re-write a chunk of it to make it work! Mostly I work using a mix of the techniques you describe – I have the bones in place, but the fine details I work out on the hoof.
If you were a travel journalist like Lo, what would be your dream assignment and why?
I have always wanted to go to India or Thailand and I never have. So I would love to go somewhere beautiful and remote, and completely detach from everyday life. I’m also – contrary to how it may have come across in the book – a big fan of spa treatments. So throw in a massage or two, and I’d be in heaven!
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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review, and thank you to Ruth Ware for participating in this Q&A!