While a handful of passengers who travel by boat go missing every year, they are mere statistics. However, to one man, they mean a great deal, as he lost his wife and son in such a way and then never turned up again. Five years on, a missing girl reappears aboard one of the large ocean liners, holding a relic from the past. Where has she been and how might her disappearance be part of a larger plot? Fitzek stirs up something inside the reader and keeps them guessing throughout.
Martin Schwartz is still trying to come to terms with the loss of his wife and son. Their disappearance aboard a pleasure cruise still haunts him five years later. When no trace could be found of them, it was determined to be a sick sort of murder-suicide, where they went overboard. The phenomena of missing passengers on ships has a name, Passenger 23, attributed to the number of people who go missing in this manner every year. Now, Schwartz has been summoned aboard the Sultan of the Seas, a massive ship travelling from the English Coast over to New York. When he boards, he is greeted by an old woman who is known for her fiction writing. However, she has a story to tell that may change Schwartz’s mind about what happened to his family.
While the ship lumbers out into the open waters, a girl mysteriously reappears, looking haggard and highly confused. What’s more, Anouk Lamar was declared missing while travelling aboard. She’s clutching something highly intriguing, the teddy bear Schwartz’s son had during his journey on the open waters. Schwartz, a trained police psychologist, tries to learn what’s happened to Anouk and discover who may have been holding her captive.
While the results come back that Anouk was raped, it is the crew of the Sultan that want to keep the news under wraps. Schwartz is tasked with trying to figure out what happened to Anouk and who may be responsible, all before they make it to shore. Schwartz is baffled at the cloak and dagger games, but does his best to discover where Anouk and others may have been held, as well as who might be responsible for it all.
Meanwhile, someone has Anouk’s mother captive, another supposed victim of Passenger 23. There is a game of cat and mouse—more like spider and fly—taking place and the elusive captor has a plan. Stopping at nothing to instill fear and push various forms of torture on the broken woman, someone has a plan that may be larger than this single woman. Time is running out and the ship is massive, leaving every door a possible spot to stow someone away, in a sick game that few know is even taking place. A chilling story to say the least and proves that Fitzek is on his game.
It takes a certain type of writer to really get to the heart of a chilling tale and grip the reader throughout. Sebastian Fitzek has proven capable of that with his unique take on the crime thriller, using the open seas as the primary setting. While the story progresses as many others might, it is the compartmentalization of the entire group aboard a ship that gives the story a new sense of urgency and thrill. Fitzek builds the narrative up and keeps the reader guessing what awaits them, as the piece is full of twists and turns that no one could have seen coming.
While Martin Schwartz is the presumed protagonist, he shares the important portions of the story with many others. Schwartz has an interesting backstory, both with the police and the loss of his family. Schwartz works tirelessly when he is aboard the ship to better understand what’s happened and get to the root of the issue. However, things take many a turn and Schwartz ends up learning a great deal about himself as he pieces the mystery together. I have no idea if Fitzek writes standalone only, but Martin Schwartz would be intriguing to see again, allowing his character to develop a little more.
The vast array of supporting characters provides an intriguing flavor to the narrative. From those who work aboard the Sultan of the Seas to the passengers who have their own backstories, the collection of people who grace the pages of the book help to enrich the reading experience. I can see Fitzek developing them throughout, as each plays a key role in the larger story. There is definitely not a skimping when it comes to constructing them to effectively tell the story needed to better understand what is going on.
The book itself flows relatively well, with little when it comes to poor pacing. The fact that it was translated is not obvious, as Fitzek’s writing has surely been placed in the hands of a professional. The story flows with ease and the mystery builds throughout, adding twists at just the right time to keep the reader guessing until the final pages. Strong narrative movement and a unique plot let Passenger 23 stand out in the genre. A mix of chapter lengths help tease the reader into wanting to get ‘just a little more read’ before putting it aside at any one time. I am eager to see some of the other work that Fitzek has penned and hope they were as exciting as this novel.
Kudos, Mr. Fitzek, for intriguing me a great deal. I hope to find some of your other work soon and compare it with this stunning piece of writing.