As the book begins, a woman in fur is being escorted off a cruise ship by a pair of police officers. A journalist runs up to them and demands details on a crime that occurred. The journalist also inadvertently lets slip that Hitler has invaded Poland and the world is now at war, and the woman absorbs the news as the chapter fades to a close.
Flash back five weeks in time to the cruise ship setting sail from Britan, and young Lily Shepherd coming on board to take a job as a domestic servant in Australia. On the ship with her are her cabinmates Amanda and Ida, Jewish refugee Maria, handsome aspiring lawyer Edward and his sister Helena, wealthy couple Eliza and Max, and fascist jerk George. We don’t know whom among them is the woman in handcuffs, nor whom among them will be the victim, yet as the story unfolds, clear currents of tension arise amongst the characters.
The first chapter sets the tone of a golden age mystery, and indeed there’s a very Agatha Christie-esque feel to the novel that I loved. But expecting a Christie-esque mystery will only leave the reader disappointed. The murder itself doesn’t occur till late in the book and, despite the growing conflicts between the various characters, there is little of that escalating ominous undercurrent that makes Christie’s books so electrifying. As a mystery or thriller, it feels slow, and I found myself wondering when something would happen.
Rather, Dangerous Crossing succeeds primarily if you come to it with no expectations of a compelling mystery. The characters each have their own secrets to bear, but the individual secrets that are revealed — and that do play a part in the development and execution of the crime — aren’t quite as compelling as simply seeing the characters interact. Rhys does a fantastic job developing the world of 1939 Europe. As with the movie Titanic, one of the most compelling things about large ships is the stratification of classes among the passengers, and Rhys plays with that tension masterfully. The way Lily and Edward are somewhat ‘adopted’ as friends by Eliza and Max feels very much like rich children discovering new toys, and even seemingly generous acts like paying for their trip to Egypt or giving Lily a dress feel wrong for some reason.
Rhys also does a great job in conflating the immediate and personal events onboard the ship with the larger context of world events. Our awareness of the impending crime is compounded by our awareness of the impending war, and both colour the way in which we view the characters gaily exploring pyramids and shopping for souvenirs. The character of Maria is a particularly strong example of this, as she faces discrimination from fellow passengers, dismissiveness from the ship’s crew over her requests, and also lives with constant worry about the lack of news from her family back home.
Overall, Dangerous Crossing is a compelling and beautifully written novel, and fans of historical fiction will appreciate how thoroughly Rhys has crafted her world.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.