Review by Terence Jagger
This is a modern murder mystery, but is set in 1924 and is explicitly in the grand manner of the “golden age”, with all that implies – both charming in its setting and being full of outdated social assumptions and a lot of wealth and snobbery, but also full of unlikelihoods and practical improbabilities. When I am reading genuine old fashioned fiction, I just ignore its weaknesses for the sake of the plot and the comfort factor, which they often have in abundance. But I am inclined to be a bit harsher in judging modern books – they don’t have to accept all the assumptions of an earlier period (though they can if they wish), but especially, they could perhaps strive for slightly more realism in the telling of the story (though I do accept a murder on a luxurious transatlantic liner a hundred years ago is never going to be very realistic or down to earth!).
So A Fatal Crossing is lightweight and unconvincing, but sometimes charming. The ship, the Endeavour, has 2,000 people on board, but when a death is discovered, it is assumed to be an accident – an elderly man falling down a steep gangway and hitting his head. But James Temple, one of the passengers, pushes himself forward, claiming to be a Scotland Yard detective and saying it is murder. Temple is fantastically rude and arrogant to everyone he meets, including people he wants favours from, and while I’ve met many very rude successful people, this just doesn’t ring true. The ship’s captain, Captain McCrory, is on his last voyage, and is sublimely uninterested in the fact that there might be a murderer on board, both when Temple beards him in his cabin, and later when evidence mounts – and indeed when there is more violence. His attitude, too, is a bit hard to fathom – most ship’s captains in fact and fiction are all powerful and very concerned to maintain their authority, take all decisions and lead everything that’s going on. McCrory doesn’t seem to care less, but he does allocate a junior officer, Timothy Birch, a misfit with a big personal problem which gradually becomes clearer and more important to the story, to keep an eye on Temple and work with him as far as possible.
The plot is intriguing, and this is probably the best part of the book. Hindle restricts the story to a manageable number of people with an ingenious device of a stolen picture – which can only be a motive to a tiny number of people because the painting’s very existence is largely unknown – and indeed, is on the Endeavour en route to an art fair in new York where its production will astonish the world.
As the investigation goes forward – without the Captain informing the police of either New York or the UK that it is happening – we gradually become aware that Temple has a more than professional interest in the mystery, and indeed that his own status is in some way uncertain. Apart from anything else, he is in touch with another passenger, which he tries to keep from Birch, and their relationship is decidedly equivocal. And young Birch himself (who strikes one as a pretty pathetic creature, but who it later becomes clear, has abundant reason for his lack of sociability and indeed continual depression) has a story which somehow must connect to the alleged murder or the characters around it, though how does not become clear until very late in the story.
The solution of the murder is, rightly, a bit of a surprise, but is normal business as far as these stories go – though Temple’s cocksureness and off-handed contempt for everyone makes one hope he’s got it wrong! – but is only one of a pair of climaxes. The final denouement is unusual and intrinsically shocking – no spoiler alerts – but I suspect many experienced murder mystery readers will have more than an inkling of it before it happens.
The writing is not particularly elegant or evocative, and the characters are rather cardboard and easily confused, but the story is a good yarn for a long plane (or liner) journey, and should keep you amused for a few hours.
Tom Hindle, A Fatal Crossing (Century, 2022). 978-1529135695, 449 pp, hardback.
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