Desert Isle Keeper
If you’re a fan of classic mysteries with exotic settings, Rachel Rhys’ Dangerous Crossing is the perfect book for you. It’s set aboard a fancy ocean liner making its way from England to Australia on the eve of the Second World War, and it’s filled with all the drama, romance, and suspense you could want.
The story opens with a nameless woman being led off an ocean liner in handcuffs, accused of the murder of a fellow passenger. The author then takes us back to the beginning of the voyage and introduces us to a wide and varied cast of characters, all bound for new lives in Australia. It’s a quiet, rather unassuming story that doesn’t rely on flashy twists to capture the reader’s interest. Instead, Ms. Rhys reels us in with her remarkable attention to even the tiniest detail of life aboard ship and her ability to create characters who seem ready to jump off the page.
Housemaid Lily Shepherd is ready to start a new life. After a disaster involving the son of her former employer that left her dearest friend dead, Lily knows there’s nothing left for her in England. So, she takes advantage of a government program that offers discounted passage to young women who are willing to live and work in Australia for a number of years, and boards the Orantes, a ship more ornate and luxurious than anything she’s ever seen. Still grieving the loss of her friend, Lily doesn’t plan to get involved with any of her fellow passengers, but, of course, fate has other plans.
As soon as the Orantes sets sail, Lily gets caught up in the magic of shipboard life. True, it’s smelly and crowded, but it enables her to get to know people who wouldn’t have given her a second glance on shore, and she soon finds herself growing close to a diverse group of travelers, most notably Max and Eliza Campbell, a married couple who are traveling first class and seem desperate for a way to escape the scandal that dogs their steps.
Lily is rather naïve and soon becomes enthralled by the Campbells and the flashy existence of those on the first class deck. She doesn’t necessarily like Max and Eliza, but they fascinate her in a strange way and she feels a strong need to learn more about them and their secrets. In their company, Lily is able to attend fancy dress balls and take part in expeditions to the Egyptian pyramids, things she certainly could not have afforded to do on her own, but even in the midst of the glitz and glamour with which the Campbells surround themselves, Lily feels a sense of impending doom unlike anything she’s felt before.
And then, there’s Edward Fletcher, a sickly young law student, to whom Lily is almost instantly attracted. A part of her knows it would be foolish to get involved with Edward, but another, more adventurous part urges her to let her hair down and live a little on the voyage. Unfortunately, Edward doesn’t seem nearly as interested in Lily as she is in him and instead, he trails after Eliza, a willing participant in any scheme she proposes in the name of excitement.
There’s so much more to this story than I can accurately convey here. Ms. Rhys has crafted a novel that skilfully blends social commentary with thrilling suspense. She doesn’t shy away from difficult topics like racism, sexual assault, and addiction, but neither does she beat her readers over the head with them. Instead, she allows her characters to deal with them in very real ways, adding an extra layer of authenticity to the story.
Lily is an engaging and sympathetic heroine. She’s not perfect, but she experiences quite a bit of growth over the course of the novel. I was sometimes frustrated by some of her decisions, but none of them seemed out of character, and Ms. Rhys did a stellar job of helping me understand her motivations.
The pacing of Dangerous Crossing won’t appeal to all readers. As I stated above, it’s not full of shocking twists and chilling discoveries and the build-up to the climax is slow, much like the voyage of the Orantes would have been. I loved this aspect of the book, but I do recognize that some might find it plodding or tedious.
Dangerous Crossing is a book I’m eager to recommend to readers of historical mysteries who aren’t looking for something overtly shocking. It’s not the type of psychological thriller I usually choose to read, but I’m so glad I traveled a bit outside my comfort zone and gave it a chance. It was totally worth my time, and I urge all of you to pick it up at your earliest convenience.