Crime Corner: The Woman in Cabin 10

When non-Norwegian writers take us to Norway

book covers for the Woman in Cabin 10 and In a Dark, Dark Wood

Photo: Creative Commons/Wikipedia
Crime fiction writer Ruth Ware can compete with the likes of Norwegian greats, such as Karin Fossum, Gunnar Staalesen, and Jo Nesbø.

Norwegian Noir with Jerry Holt

The coronavirus has played hell with our travel plans lately—and that of course makes Norway an even more romantic reading destination. While Norwegian writers like Karin Fossum, Gunnar Staalesen, and Jo Nesbø do a superb job of taking our imaginations there, non-Norwegians sometimes attempt the journey as well—and that can produce varying results. An example on the bum trip side of the ledge is found in Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 (2017), one of the more unthrilling thrillers to cross this reviewer’s desk in some time.

Ware is a British writer who now has six books in print, all thrillers. She specializes in the “narrator-in-distress” gambit: A young woman with problems—just enough to make her fallible—is involved in a set of perilous circumstances where her life depends on people believing her version of events. Her 2016 bestseller In a Dark, Dark Wood is a good example of what she tries to do. Ware has done her genre homework: While the earlier book evokes Agatha Christie devices, The Woman In Cabin 10 lingers in broader territory—somewhere between Gone Girl and The Lady Vanishes—but, sadly, she neglected to do her Norway homework—and it shows.

We find ourselves consigned to the first-person narration of Laura “Lo” Blacklock, a reporter for a jetset magazine who has landed the plum assignment of covering the maiden voyage of a luxury mini-ship that is supposed to take the owner and his wife and a handful of rich folk up the western coast of Norway. Lo is probably not in the best frame of mind for this event: She has just been robbed back home and things could be better between her and her globetrotting reporter boyfriend, who loves war zones. Lo’s mental health was already so precarious that she cannot function without a daily mood stabilizer. Since this cruise pretty much demands that the guests slosh alcohol at all times, Lo has that cross to bear as well: In fact, she’s looped from the first reception on the yacht.

You read thrillers, and you know what’s coming. Lo knocks on the door of Cabin 10—you know; the one we are soon to find out is unoccupied—and in fact does find a woman in residence. The mysterious woman even lends Lo some makeup. Then of course the woman disappears. Through a booze fog, Lo will later that night hear bumping sounds—is somebody being thrown overboard? In her own irritating way (she’s a yammerer that puts one in mind of Elaine on Seinfeld), she manages to get herself kidnapped and held on the boat, and, unfortunately for readers who are hoping for a glimpse of Norway, this of course prevents her from actually de-boating. Some hundred pages in, a hot cabin is a truly stifling way to spend reading time. We do get a brief chase in the dark on Norwegian soil, but otherwise we miss Bergen and we miss the fjords and just about the only thing we don’t miss is an unsurpising revelation about the disappearing woman in Cabin 10 that has all the shock of a dead herring.  

Ware is hardly the first thriller writer to try to take us to Norway, and I am pleased to offer two examples who have done so with considerably more success. The first example is the now unforgivably forgotten Hammond Innes (1913 – 1998), who, like Ware, is British. Innes specialized in adventure stories in the Jack London mold, but his plots employed plenty of outside-the-law hijinks as well. Innes had a military background and had seen plenty of the world. His 1948 novel The Blue Ice takes us to Norway aboard another smaller craft—this one a sailboat—which is owned by our narrator, Bill Gansert, an adventurer who is determined to find former acquaintance George Farnell. Farnell may have discovered a strain of precious minerals somewhere in the Jostedal Glacier near Bergen. Even though Farnell is supposed to be dead and buried up there somewhere, Gansert doubts that—as do several other pursuers with ties to Germany during the war including one young woman, the very resourceful Jill Summers, whose skiing prowess turns out to be one of the many thrills of this superb thriller. In fact, once the skiing sequences kick in, you’re not likely to find a book that better expresses the sheer beauty of Norway. Will Gansert and Summers (Oh, all right. Bill and Jill.) find Farnell alive, along with his scientific secrets? I turned the pages of this one late into the night—especially during the part where, partway up the glacier in a small country graveyard, our group exhumes the plot where Farnell is supposed to lie. Innes knows Norway well, and we immerse along with his narrator Gansert as he enters the longest fjord in Norway: “For 130 miles it stretched eastward … It was 2 to 5 miles wide with towering mountains falling sheer to the water and it was as deep as the mountains were high.” Innes could write like a fallen angel, and this one is highly, highly recommended.

Also full of unexpected treasures is The Terminators, a 1975 midway entry in the remarkably successful Matt Helm series by American Donald Hamilton (1916 – 2006). Hamilton caught the James Bond wave back in 1960 with his creation of Secret Agent Helm, who suddenly was turning up everywhere Gold Medal Paperbacks were sold and became even more ubiquitous through a series of truly horrible films starring Dean Martin, which bore no similarities to the books other than titles. In The Terminators, the forever cynical Helm is sent to Norway (the book begins in Bergen) to investigate dark doings in Norway’s burgeoning oil industry, but before he can begin, another agent—a woman posing as Helm’s mistress—is killed. The story is violent and quite dark, which is typical of this series. But Hamilton, who was Swedish, writes with great feel for the country and admirable understanding of Norway’s place on the world stage in the 1970s. And, unlike Ware, we never doubt that Hamilton has BEEN there: Of Helm’s arrival in Bergen in the clutch of autumn, we are told:  “… it was raining hard and the streets were full of citizens in boots and slickers.” Lord, do I remember those days and my many walks in the rain. I read a while back that Steven Spielberg has optioned a Helm novel for a new jaunt on the silver screen. With my love for Bergen, I hope it’s this one.

This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.