Travel writer turns to travel mysteries: review


Diane Rapp is an example of how a writer’s “other” work can fuel her fiction.

Several years ago, this Texas-based writer co-authored a travel guide, Cruising the Eastern Caribbean, with her daughter, Laura. They spent three months visiting 11 islands, and Laura planned to write a mystery set in the Caribbean when the guide was finished. But Laura discovered she didn’t like writing fiction and passed on the idea to her mother.

The result is Rapp’s High Seas Mysteries, a new series of cozies that blend classic whodunit plots, international intrigue and romance. The first two books in the series, Murder Caribbean-style and Murder on a Ghost Ship, came out last year. A third novel, featuring about a wedding cruise to Alaska, is currently in the works.

A mystery series set on cruise ships is a terrific premise. The writer has no shortage of settings, and readers get the double delight of a good mystery read and vicarious travel. As well as a fast-paced plot, Murder Caribbean-style has vivid descriptions of the ports of call the characters visit and glimpses of the glamorous life aboard a cruise ship. Ironically, Rapp found that fiction allowed her to capture the atmosphere of real-life locations in a way that she couldn’t in a factual guidebook.

While the settings are big draws for readers, the books’ real charm is their winsome protagonist, the thirtysomething Kayla Sanders. In Murder Caribbean-style, Kayla has returned to the cruise ship where she worked for several years in the purser’s office. Like her author, she’s now a writer of travel guidebooks, and she’s updating her book on Caribbean that came out the previous year. She’s primed for a fabulous trip until she finds that Patrick MacIntyre, the man who broke her heart a few years before, is the new purser.

When Patrick is killed on a day trip, Kayla is an obvious suspect and so are some of her friends. She has to find out who wanted Patrick dead. And she needs to understand why Patrick changed from the carefree, fun-loving man who won her heart into the self-absorbed cynic who threw her over. She teams up with Interpol agent Steven Young to track down Patrick’s murderer, and the result is a rollicking, and at times hair-raising, rollercoaster ride through the Caribbean.

Rapp ramps up the excitement in Murder on a Ghost Ship by adding chills to the thrills. There’s less travelogue in this novel. Much of the action takes place on the ship itself, because that’s where the ghost hangs out. Instead of descriptions of exotic scenery and historical sites, Rapp blends a murder mystery plot with a paranormal storyline, and sends Kayla off to save a ship from a danger that no one can see.

Emily Schultz, the president of Constellation Cruise Lines, has discovered that the Sea Mist, a ship she recently purchased for the line, harbors a resident ghost that’s given to violent temper tantrums, and Emily asks Kayla to help her. Assisted by Natalia Baliskov, an entertainer who performs a psychic act in the ship’s theater, and Stephen Young, Kayla begins by finding out who the ghost once was.

She believes the woman was passenger on the Sea Mist several years before who jumped overboard. When the ghost begins communicating with her by transmitting images from her final days, Kayla learns that the woman was, in fact, pushed to her death and is trying to prevent another murder on the ship. In less skilled hands, this ghostly communication could have been pretty hokey, but Rapp makes it work by having Kayla empathize with the other woman’s plight.

In the course of the investigation, one character after another falls under suspicion until the mystery wraps up in the final pages. And dovetailing with this storyline is a subplot involving an international smuggling operation. When Kayla’s not tracking the woman’s murderer, she helps Steven, who is now her fiancé, determine how the smugglers are distributing their loot and who is heading this operation.

My one reservation concerns Kayla’s romance with Steven. The course of this love story goes far too smoothly. More uncertainty about this relationship over the course of several books would have added to the tension, and provided Kayla with opportunities to display her strength and resourcefulness.

But both books would be great summer vacation reading. I’m looking forward to the wedding cruise to Alaska.

My rating: * * * *s

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About rosemarymccracken

Rosemary McCracken is a Toronto-based journalist and fiction writer.
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