Book reviews: fiction from Sebastian Fitzek, Francesca Kay and JK Rowling

Get on board with one of Germany’s biggest writers, investigate the fine line between love and obsession in a new literary thriller, and watch an unknown writer find her feet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 January, 2016, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 January, 2016, 9:00pm

Passenger 23

by Sebastian Fitzek (read by Marc Thompson)

Random House (audiobook)

Sebastian Fitzek is becoming a major star of the audiobook world. If the name doesn’t ring any bells, that’s possibly because his international profile is yet to match that in his German homeland. English translations of Fitzek’s thrillers have already attracted some major audiobook performers: Robert Glenister has read two Fitzek books, while The Child was dramatised with an all-star cast including Andy Serkis. Passenger 23 sounds like it was inspired by a statistic: apparently an estimated 20 people vanish each year from cruise ships.

In this novel, it is Martin Schwartz’s wife and young son who disappear without trace from The Sultan. Five years after vowing never to set foot on a boat again, Schwartz, a police psychologist, does just that – and on The Sultan no less – in pursuit of answers to his family’s destruction. Max Beesley makes a believably damaged Schwartz, and is more than ably assisted by a supporting cast of Anthony Head and Rebecca Hall. Passenger 23 is full of surprises, not all of them earned, and quite a lot of chills. This engrossing production is perhaps slightly better than the story itself.

The Long Room

by Francesca Kay

Faber & Faber (e-book)

The Long Room is a fine literary thriller that owes debts to John Le Carré, Ian McEwan and that excellent movie about the German secret police, The Lives of Others. The novel is set in London over the Christmas of 1981, and follows Stephen Donaldson, who is the very definition of nondescript. While his deep dullness results in a profound loneliness (Donaldson’s mother is his closest intimate, and she is far from intimate), it also makes him excellent at his job: eavesdropping on the conversations of old Communists and double agents. Tasked with keeping tabs on a possible traitor within his own espionage organisation, Donaldson falls for the subject’s wife, Helen, but only over the phone. To Donaldson’s coiled imagination, she is a late 20th century Helen of Troy. Yet she is necessarily Donaldson’s own creation, dreamt up from conversations, overhead piano recitals and whatever else Donaldson wants her to be. Francesca Kay’s elegant prose plays smartly with the genre conventions, weighing obsession and secrets, mind and body, the inner world against the outer. The Long Room is evocative, compelling and ultimately very sad – a study in the fine line separating illusion and delusion, love and obsession.

Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone

by J.K. Rowling (read by Stephen Fry)

Pottermore (audiobook)

My resolution for 2016 is, finally, to read the works of the obscure saga spinner JK Rowling – hopefully finishing her seven-novel cycle in time to read to my own smallish daughter. Helping Rowling haul herself from anonymity are these new-to-download audiobooks released via her own publishing venture, Pottermore. As the plot is doubtless familiar to many (Harry’s horrid family, his lovely friends, his dastardly enemies), I will focus on Stephen Fry’s English narration (the American belongs to Jim Dale).

Once the Elgarish strings quieten, Fry’s reasonable tones go to work, first on creating an eminently English world where normality reigns, little changes and nothing very strange or mysterious occurs. Fry is terrific at catching the Dursleys’ snappish pettiness, talking about Harry as though “he were something very nasty that couldn’t understand them, like a slug”. You can almost hear Fry’s eyebrows go up, along with his tempo, as the magic finally happens: first, through the burly giant Hagrid, later at King’s Cross station, and finally at Hogwarts. Fry’s voices are nicely judged, from Hagrid’s cod-Shakespearean semi-ogre to the soft-spoken creepiness of Snape, the potion master. “The problem was strange things often happened around Harry …” I can’t wait to find out how strange these things can get in part two.