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Thursday 6 October 2016

‘Distress Signals’ by Catherine Ryan Howard

Published by Corvus,
5 May 2016.
ISBN: 978-1-78239-838-7 TPB)

There’s so much crime fiction on the market these days that it’s hard to find a new twist, especially when the plot involves possible serial murder. But Catherine Ryan Howard has succeeded at her very first try; Distress Signals is her debut novel.

Not only has she put a different slant on the crime itself; she has also come up with a setting unlike any I’ve ever encountered before; what’s more, it makes a huge difference to the way, and the extent to which, the crime is investigated.

If, indeed, there is a crime. The narrative is more than halfway through before that is made clear. It begins with a disappearance. A young woman, Sarah O’Connell, has failed to return home from a short business trip, and after a few days her passport arrives in the post with the briefest of notes: I’M SORRY – S.

Has she left of her own accord? It certainly looks like it, and the police think so. But her boyfriend, Adam Dunne, is convinced she has been abducted, or worse, and sets out to find the truth.

His search takes him to a cruise liner travelling between Barcelona and Nice – and that’s when the fun really begins.

Howard has clearly researched meticulously, and what a tangle she has unearthed. For your common or garden psychopathic serial murderer, a cruise ship is an ideal hunting ground. Jurisdiction over any crime committed during a voyage lies with the country in which the ship is registered – and that could be anywhere from Barbados to Libya. And what cruise company is going to go out of its way to preserve evidence which could destroy its reputation for the days it would take detectives from that country to travel across the world?

This is in real life, remember, not just in fiction – but on the pages of a novel, it’s rich pickings, and Howard makes the most of them. The depth of her research is clear, but she wears it lightly, and weaves it into a multi-layered story with plenty of twists and turns. Adam emerges as a rounded, scratch-him-and-he-bleeds personality with feelings any reader can empathize with, and so do the supporting cast members. The cruise ship is vividly evoked, and so are minor locations such as the police station where Sarah is reported missing.

There’s even an apparently unrelated  sub-plot running parallel to the main story, which not only serves to build tension as the focus shifts on to it, but also proves every bit as tense and involving, right up to the point where the two narrative lines come together.

This is a debut which takes accomplished to a whole new level. On this showing, Catherine Ryan Howard has a great future.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick
Catherine Ryan Howard was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1982. Before writing full-time, she was (very briefly) a campsite courier in France, a travel administrator in the Netherlands and a front desk agent at a hotel in Walt Disney World, Florida. She is currently studying English at Trinity College Dublin and wants to be a NASA astronaut when she grows up. She has led workshops and seminars on self-publishing and social media for the likes of Faber Academy in London, the Irish Writers' Centre and the Inkwell Group (Dublin), and has spoken at various book and writing festivals, including ChipLitFest, Dublin Book Festival and Mountains to Sea.  Her debut thriller, Distress Signals, was published by Corvus/Atlantic in the UK and Ireland in May 2016 and in Australia and New Zealand in June 2016. She is also the self-published author of three titles: two light-hearted travel memoirs and a guide to self-publishing.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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