If you’ve ever read one of the hundreds of books and blogs and pieces of particularly literary graffiti on how to write a story, you’ll be familiar with this – overly familiar, to the point it’s a little uncomfortable: ‘write something that completely surprises your readers but also feels inevitable, like there’s no other satisfactory way things could have ended‘.
But for the amount of writers who proffer this advice, very few seem to prescribe to it – and no wonder. It’s hard. But Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a masterclass on getting this right.
A tightly told thriller and murder mystery, where half the mystery is working out if there was actually a murder, The Woman in Cabin 10 should be recommended reading for anyone trying to write mystery, suspense, or unreliable narrators.
Watch out! The woman in cabin ten’s whereabouts may be unknown, but there are definitely spoilers!
The story is told – mostly – from the first-person point of view of travel journalist Lo Blacklock, who’s quickly (and cleverly) set up to seem like an unreliable narrator. She starts the novel admitting she ‘really needed to stop drinking mid-week’, then – after her flat is burgled while she’s at home – she goes ‘instantly on the defensive’ when the police press about medication that was stolen from her.
We know from chapter one the story’s being told by a narrator who drinks too much and is on medication she doesn’t want to talk about; right away we’re suspicious of her, what she notices, what she starts second-guessing.
She can’t sleep, panicking about the break-in at her flat (and making the fatal mistake of googling how many criminals return to break-ins – never google that). She neglects her work, ignoring the research she’s meant to be doing ahead of the press launch of a luxury cruise ship. She’s already showing cracks.
And, when she gets to the ship and realises how far behind the other journalists she already is, Lo only fills the cracks with booze. A lot of booze.
So, when she wakes up the first night, vaguely thinking that something must have woken her – and later thinks it might have been a scream – we’re already unsure of her story.
Something had woken me up. Something that left me jumpy and strung-out as a meth-addict.
Why did I keep thinking of a scream?
She hears a splash – ‘[t]he kind of splash made by a body hitting water’ – and, looking out of her veranda, thinks she sees something in the water. It might have been a hand, but she’s not sure. Looking at the cabin next door, she sees a mark on the safety glass which could be blood. Maybe.
It’s late, it’s dark, she’s only just woken up and she’s had a lot to drink. We’re not sure either.
And neither’s the ship’s security, Nilsson.
He watched me, something sympathetic in his eyes.
It was the sympathy that stung more than anything else.
Nilsson takes Lo to the cabin next door – and it’s empty. Completely empty. No cases, no clothes, no sign of life.
Which might have been enough to make Lo doubt what she thought she heard, if she hadn’t spoken to a woman in that cabin the day before.
She borrowed her mascara.
Was it really possible she was dead?
But the alternative was not much better. Because if she wasn’t, the only other possibility – and suddenly I wasn’t sure if it was better or worse – was that I was going mad.
And so Lo, shaken and hungover, is thrust into a murder investigation where no one else believes there was a murder.
She might have stopped believing it herself if her one piece of evidence, the mascara, wasn’t stolen from her. And if someone hadn’t left her a message to stop digging. And if the camera with a photo of the woman from cabin ten on it wasn’t deliberately broken…
So whodunnit? Without knowing who the girl was, none of the suspects seem likely. There’s the owner of the luxury cruise ship, Richard Bullmer, a Richard Branson sort – an adventurous billionaire whose billions all come from his wife, Anne, ‘the Lyngstad heiress’. She’s ‘kind of a recluse’, hairless and gaunt after four years of chemo and radiotherapy.
There’s Cole Lederer, a photographer whose wife just left him for his best friend. He came onto the ship with a notably large case of photo equipment – supposedly – but he’s only been seen with a point-and-click camera.
There’s Chloe Jenssen, a model who can transform herself with make-up.
‘Contouring,’ Chloe said. She swung the chair around to face me and winked. ‘Honestly, it’ll change your life. I could turn you into anyone from Kim Kardashian to Natalie Portman with what I’ve got in my cabin.’
And there’s Ben Howard, Lo’s journalist ex-boyfriend, who says he believes her. But also doesn’t give her all the facts about his own alibi…
Whodunnits – especially Agatha Christie-esque whodunnits, where a gaggle of likely-looking suspects have been gathered in close quarters, with no way in or out – often feel stale to me. Unless they embrace the silliness, the paint-by-numbers slasher-film feel of the set-up, like Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve-Up!, or give it the loving period parody of a Jeeves and Wooster novel, like James Anderson’s Burford Family Mysteries, I often struggle to find anything to enjoy in them.
But Ruth Ware found another way to make a murder-mystery feel fresh – make it fresh.
In every review I’ve seen, The Woman in Cabin 10 is compared to the works of Agatha Christie, but it is in every sense a modern novel. Lo is a flawed character – it’s central to the whole premise that those flaws are put under a spotlight, so we don’t quite know if we can trust her. And she’s a realistic character – not just because she struggles with anxiety and sometimes drinks more than she should and doesn’t know if she wants to move in with her boyfriend or not – because she doesn’t have a clue how to handle a murder investigation.
She’s no Poirot. She bumbles. She reveals too much to the wrong people. She can’t hold onto evidence to save her life.
When the mascara the woman from cabin ten gave her – the only thing she has to reassure herself she’s not crazy – disappears from her room, Lo can’t recall who she told about it. Was it only Nilsson? Or did she mention it to the other staff while she was meeting them all, trying to find the woman who’d been in cabin ten?
The fact that she questions herself – ‘I – I was trying to think. […] I can’t absolutely remember. I could have mentioned it’ – is frustrating and relatable. And frustratingly relatable.
Ware also plays around with some epistolary inserts between sections of the novel, jumping forward in time to show emails from Lo’s boyfriend who hasn’t heard from her, then worried threads on Facebook – then news reports.
‘BBC news, Monday 28 September
Missing Briton Laura Blacklock: Body Found by Danish Fishermen
Danish fishermen dredging in the North Sea off the coast of Norway have found the body of a woman.’
I love this. It’s audience-baiting at it’s finest. We have no idea if the body is Lo’s or the woman in cabin ten’s, or someone else’s entirely, and the knowledge that someone definitely dies injects tension and suspense into every scene that comes after.
Ware clearly has fun playing with this idea. ‘WhoDunnit: A Discussion Place for Armchair Detectives’ a forum of wonderfully named users who throw around wild speculation in only the way true crime fans on the internet can (by utterly forgetting there are actual people involved) is a true highlight of the novel.
And, of course, with what I can only imagine is a throaty, maniacal laugh, Ware gives us more news articles, revealing a second body has been found.
These glimpses of the future are ingenious. Letting the audience in on something the protagonist can’t possibly know is cruel and wonderful.
The only place it doesn’t work is at the beginning of the novel, where Ware fast-forwards to Lo finding a warning to stop digging. Clunky and out of place, it was one of the few moments that made the book feel like an airport-read thriller, rather than the clever story it is, to me. We don’t need to start in the middle. We don’t need a teaser trailer of what’s to come.
I get the impression an editor insisted the story start in action (mid-burglary is, of course, never considered in action) and this was hurriedly tagged in, because Ware herself seems to trust her readers don’t need things spelled out for them – as her ending stands testament to.
Denouncing the denouncement
Murder-mysteries often turn to the old and tired denouncement trope, where the investigator gathers everyone together to tell them how clever he is and prompt the killer to immediately confess everything they’ve done in great detail (usually in ‘The Evil Voice’, as Mitchell and Webb pointed out).
It always carries a whiff of, ‘I’d have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids’. I half expect them all to be unmasked as the owners of run-down carnivals.
The Woman in Cabin 10 eschews this entirely – there’s no denouncement, no moment of Lo summing up the case and neatly tying all the loose threads together. Ware trusts her readers are smart enough not to need one. Not a traditional one, anyway.
When Lo unexpectedly sees the woman from cabin ten again, she chases after her without a thought – and runs straight into a trap. Locked in a room near the engine, Lo has time to work things out – she knows something must be going on, and she must know enough about it that she needs to be silenced. She realises if the woman from cabin ten is alive, someone else must not be – Lady Anne Bullmer. The woman from cabin ten looks just like her – similar features, a painfully thin physique. But the woman from cabin ten still had her hair when Lo saw her the first night.
After she took it off – eyebrows and all – Lo couldn’t tell the difference. (And after all, no one wants to stare at someone going through chemotherapy.)
Is it a bit of a stretch? Maybe, but closed room murder-mysteries always are. And the stretch shortens when the woman from cabin ten – Carrie – fills in the rest of the gaps.
She was Richard’s mistress. He met her at his club and ‘fell in love’. But he couldn’t leave Anne. No. Because she was sick. (Definitely because she was sick. Nothing to do with a prenup.)
The fact that Richard ‘fell in love’ with someone who looked so similar to his wife – after his very ill and very rich wife began to recover her health – tells us this might not all be quite as innocent as Carrie chooses to believe.
Richard asked Carrie to sometimes dress as his wife so they could go out in public together. Well – twice. Twice before the boat trip. (‘Trial run’ might be the more cynical term…)
The boat trip was to be the longest time Carrie posed as Anne. She was hidden in the empty cabin ten before anyone arrived, getting ready to take over as Anne after Anne left the boat the first night. But there was a terrible accident. Anne fell.
According to Richard.
Who brought Carrie her body, battered and covered in blood and bundled up in a suitcase, and asked her to dispose of it while he established his alibi.
This isn’t a villainous mastermind laying out their scheme, it’s a vulnerable woman insisting again and again that the abusive man she loves isn’t bad, really. ‘It wasn’t meant to go like this,’ she insists – but that sounds pretty damn unlikely.
Especially when we think back to Lo’s conversation with Anne – who we know now must have been Carrie.
…as she raised her glass to her lips, her robe slipped, showing a deep purple bruise on her collarbone. She saw me glance then look hastily away, and gave a self-conscious laugh.
‘I know, it looks terrible, doesn’t it? I tripped in the shower, but I bruise so easily now, it looks worse than it is. It’s a side-effect of the chemotherapy, unfortunately.’
Anne might have bruised easily from chemo. But Carrie wouldn’t.
Richard is the real villain of the piece. He never tells us he’d planned to kill his wife, he never tells us he used Carrie and would kill her and Lo too – but he doesn’t need to.
We know – no matter how many times Carrie insists it wasn’t meant to go like this – that Anne’s death was no accident. Like Lo points out, Richard couldn’t have expected Anne to get off after the first night when the ship wasn’t due to dock for days.
And finally, Carrie sees it, too. We never see the story from her perspective. We never get an a-ha! moment from her. But that’s because she’s really known it all along. Her boyfriend’s a murderer. And she can’t be a part of that.
Helping Lo escape the ship, the book sets up to go all-out thriller – a woman on the run from a murderous billionaire with police in his pockets – and then… doesn’t. Lo gets home safe. She finds out later in the news that Richard Bullmer was found dead, from what’s believed to be a suicide. And Anne’s body was found.
And the book is better for it.
Carrie may be Lo’s antagonist – stealing her evidence, warning her off, locking her up to stop her going to the police – but it’s clear none of it was ever about Lo. It was never really Lo’s story. It was Carrie’s.
Manipulated and abused and coerced into getting rid of a body – which, she realised too late, wasn’t yet a body – Carrie has been the hero all along. And so it sat squarely on Carrie to confront Richard. And kill him.
We don’t need to see it. When Lo hears a news report later announcing they’ve deemed the gunshot wound which killed Bullmer to be a homicide, we know exactly who killed him. (Though, at the book’s end, Lo is transferred a very generous sum of money from Carrie in case we were in any doubt about her fate.)
The story is made more realistic – and so far scarier – by choosing Lo as the protagonist instead of Carrie. A tense car chase from corrupt cops and a showdown with a misogynist killer belong in a different type of story. Not Lo’s. Lo is like the rest of us – imperfect, anxious, a bit selfish, and very happy to stay out of trouble with the police and homicidal maniacs. It makes sense that her story would end quietly – it might be surprising, but there’s no other way it could have ended.