On Very Visceral Mysteries: 'The Woman in Cabin 10'

Much of what happens to the protagonists here and in the comparable The Girl on the Train evades their control.

The Woman in Cabin 10

Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Author: Ruth Ware
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Length: 340 pages
Author website:
Publication date: 2016-07

In a much quoted tagline, Ruth Ware’s second novel, The Woman in Cabin 10 (2016), has been described by Stylist as “a rollicking page turner that reads like Agatha Christie got together with Paula Hawkins to crowdsource a really fun thriller.” At first, this tagline appealed to me: I’ve been a fan of Agatha Christie since forever, and I loved Paula Hawkins’ 2015 mystery, The Girl on the Train. The further I got through the story, though, the more doubt seeped in about whether there could actually be such an unnatural creature as a cross between Paula Hawkins and Agatha Christie. The Woman in Cabin 10 illustrates why, in fact, there can’t be.

This comes on the heels of her successful debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood (2015). Both novels are what she calls on her website “psychological crime thrillers”. Both feature flawed heroines who are swept up in crime in the course of their very typical lives (at a hen party, on the job); and while neither protagonist is a Hercule Poirot or a Jane Marple, they manage to stumble to some sort of resolution of the murders that embroil them, although they are always victims as well as would-be amateur (and rather unwilling) detectives.

Travel writer Lo Blacklock is sent to cover a cruise for the magazine where she works. (The senior writer who usually covers such choice assignments is on maternity leave.) Before her trip, though, Lo wakes up in the middle of the night to find an intruder in her apartment. While the intruder merely slams the bedroom door in her face, Lo is deeply traumatized, and her experience haunts her as her luxury cruise begins. Before the ship is long underway, Lo sees a mysterious woman in Cabin 10 -- a woman who subsequently disappears and whom no one will admit to ever having seen. Lo also hears what she is convinced is a body falling overboard one night. Yet none of the passengers is missing. The novel follows the unraveling of these mysteries, with the hapless Lo at the center.

The Woman in Cabin 10, as I mentioned above, bears much resemblance to Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, and virtually none to the mysteries of Agatha Christie, although the bare outline of the plot suggests Murder on the Orient Express (1934). The Girl on the Train even more clearly evokes 4:50 From Paddington (1957). I think exploring why these contemporary novels are not like Agatha Christie’s novels usefully illuminates what is becoming a veritable subgenre in the world of crime fiction.

Christie’s fiction, for the most part, has a stable, almost uncannily omniscient detective figure -- a reliable center of knowledge. Both Ware’s and Hawkins’s novels, on the other hand, are narrated by characters who are unstable and profoundly unreliable. Rachel, the protagonist of Hawkins’s novel, suffers from a serious drinking problem and routinely experiences blackouts; these blackouts form holes in her memory, in her very sense of self, which she struggles to overcome as she tries to figure out what happened to a woman who has vanished from the street where she used to live.

Ware’s Lo has some similar issues with drinking; she takes medication for anxiety; and she is suffering from PTSD after her home invasion -- all of which lead the cruise ship’s detective, among others, to discount her protestations about both the missing woman and the sound of a body going overboard. They also lead Lo to doubt herself, and she has to work to prove to others and to herself that she is, as she says (defensively), “in charge”. Christie’s detective characters never have to try.

While The Woman in Cabin 10 hints at Christie’s The Murder on the Orient Express in that both novels take place in a strictly circumscribed space, with a list of suspects limited to those on board, the differences are telling. Hercule Poirot thoroughly masters his space and his cast of suspects; he grasps immediately where each train compartment is in relation to the others and who occupies it. There’s a crucial moment, on the other hand, when Lo escapes from where she’s been confined on the (relatively small) ship, and, even though she’s re-tracing steps she took earlier, she takes a wrong turn, stumbles around, gets utterly lost.

Her spatial disorientation marks her existential and epistemological “lostness”: Lo rarely realizes where she is or what things around her mean -- and much of what happens to her is accidental, not the effect of her conscious design. The creation of this kind of unreliable narrator in a crime novel, like Rachel in The Girl on the Train, is a great strategy: it adds an additional layer of mystery to the plot; readers have to figure out not only the external events of the story, but they must also navigate the protagonist’s own murky mental and emotional terrain.

My only problem with how Ware executes this narrative strategy in both The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Dark, Dark Wood is that I was able to see quite clearly what was going on before the narrator did, and I tend to be a distinctly uncritical reader of crime fiction. (I never saw the endings of any of Christie’s novels coming, or that of The Girl on the Train, for that matter.) Ware makes the solutions of her mysteries a bit too obvious, (for the reader, if not for her protagonist), and her novels would be more effective if her clues were less glaring.

What I love about The Woman in Cabin 10, though, as well as The Girl on the Train, is the thoroughly embodied nature of the heroine, which speaks to the equally embodied nature of knowledge itself. We know things with and through our bodies: Ware’s Lo, like Hawkins’s Rachel, suffers bodily trauma, experiences irrational bodily disorders (like panic attacks), undergoes struggles with addiction, and experiences things like fear, desire, rejection, and depression in a very bodily way. Everything that happens to these heroines’ bodies shapes the way they think -- and indeed, whether they can think at all.

This complex view of what is our embodied ways of knowing is very far from the transcendent selfhood of Hercule Poirot (influenced, of course, by Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Poe’s Auguste Dupin). Near the end of Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot declares that from now on “it is all here”, as he taps himself on the forehead. He then sits utterly still, eyes closed, and thinks, and thus he solves the crime. This is the end of an investigative process that has involved Poirot’s body not at all: he has asked questions, he has talked, he has thought. Christie’s mysteries are cerebral puzzles. Which of us actually lives or knows like that?

The Woman in Cabin 10, like The Girl on the Train, features not only a fallible protagonist, but a protagonist who thinks and knows and lives in and through her body. Much of what happens to both protagonists, as a result, evades their control, exists as dark holes in their flesh that they have to think around. As Hawkins puts it in The Girl on the Train, “the holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete.” The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Girl on the Train show us that those holes are bodily and that you inevitably have to know and seek truth, as well as “grow” around them.

There’s no rapprochement, then, between Ruth Ware, Paula Hawkins, and Agatha Christie. They represent fundamentally different ways of being and knowing, fundamentally different ways of telling a story.

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