Review for Death Takes Passage, by Sue Henry

Alex and Jessie take passage on a small cruise ship that’s re-enacting the voyage of the SS Portland, whose arrival in Seattle WA with two tons of Yukon gold sparked the Klondike gold rush. Alex’s role is purely ceremonial, until crimes begin to occur, leading him to step back into his job and take on thieves and murderers alike.

I’ve been to Alaska only once, but I loved it. I picked this book up because I wanted to experience its vistas once more, and the premise of the novel—a cruise through the Inside Passage—seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I was not disappointed. The scenery description was awesome; I felt like I was there.

I was interested to read in the massive acknowledgments section at the back of the book that this voyage was actually scheduled to happen. The author got wind of it a couple of years before it was to occur and was inspired to write a fictional account of the re-enactment. That sounds both awesome and loyal to Alaska, and for that I applaud her. But I’m not sure the book was the better for her trying to serve two masters. She included several real-life individuals, and the cruise ship itself, getting permission for each, and having to adapt her plot to individual/company wishes. Between that and the information dumps (see below), the book came across as part-future-fictional-documentary. If that long acknowledgments section had been at the front, it would have helped me understand why the story sometimes took tortured side trips.

Alex and Jessie were really good characters. They were comfortable with each other and their own roles as well. Well, Alex was; there were no dogs for Jessie to mush here, so she just got to play sleuth/babysitter.

The other characters ranged from really quite awesome to “why is this person even in this book?” Some of the red herrings the book presented in the form of suspicious characters were never even explained, leaving me dissatisfied.

Young Lou, apathetic teenager extraordinaire, was apparently so adorable that Jessie wanted to adopt her on sight. Crotchety old Dallas, while eventually growing on me, struck Jessie as a muse of wisdom and affection immediately. The insertion of these characters into Jessie’s and Alex’s lives so that they could later help out with the action was so clumsy that it dragged me out of the story with a mocking snort. In both cases, Jessie states “I like you, a lot,” practically upon being introduced. The book also had a habit of taking a jaunt into the future for a couple of paragraphs and explaining how things went afterward, for sometimes weeks in the future, before jerking me back into the present time. Just because I know that, in the future, Jessie and Lou really get to like each other and hang out, does not mean that I’ll sit back and accept that as a reason for them to bond immediately. Jessie is awesome, but she is not psychic.

In fact, I got to the point of frowning every time “a lot” came up, because of Jessie’s immediate adoration for these two characters. It showed up…a lot.

The character Judy Raymond just seemed to wander through the plot, serving no purpose. Another downside of having this book contain real people is that I find myself questioning all the book’s flaws and wondering whether they’re present because of the two-masters thing again. Sigh. Judy shows up at the beginning and pops in now and again during the whole book, never seeming to have a goal of her own, never seeming to find a resolution. I’m not sure she deserved the end she got, but at least something was finally certain about her.

The bad guys had their own scenes in this novel. I didn’t mind it for most of the book, until the last scene they had all to themselves. In that scene, they blatantly give away the plan they’ve been carefully keeping from us all throughout the book. The next scene they’re in is when they’re beginning to execute that plan. Why couldn’t we just keep that mystery (or at least the illusion of it—it wasn’t that difficult to ascertain) going just a little further? Honestly! If you’re going to keep it a secret for so long, do so all the way to the action-packed reveal. On the other hand, the bad guys didn’t do much more than give us the opportunity to see their bumbling, argumentative selves and some more nice scenery. The book could have done without their scenes entirely.

I loved this plot. The captive audience is one of my favorite types of mystery. The scenery and building suspense were highly enjoyable. The bad guys had a good plan. The good guys had a better one. And there was much sneaking about and kicking ass. It was great. Most enjoyably, the ending resulted in actual arrests. Be still my heart.

There was one plot hole that bothered me, especially when it ended up being critical to the final action. One of the mysterious characters Alex and Jessie had already met had a friend she hung out with. The heroes wondered if he was up to anything. But they never so much as spoke to him, even after voicing an intent to do so. Eventually, Alex requests a background check on the guy while Alex is off the ship in Ketchikan, despite the man’s continued presence aboard ship and lack of attempting to hide in any way. But before it comes in, the bad guys start to do their thing and the good guys figure everything out the hard way. SPOILER I wasn’t even sure why the author kept it a secret, since it was all a red herring anyway. END SPOILER

I was inordinately pleased to find that the book wasn’t written in first person. I got to follow Alex around most of the time, but sometimes I also got to follow Jessie. They both made for equally entertaining main characters.

In most cases, the novel flowed effortlessly, especially in the scenery description. I could feel a deep love of the land and the sea in those words. But every now and again, the book would pause, and an info dump would back up, beeping, and bury me in facts which were described in present tense. It was as if the author copied and pasted from an encyclopedia. Most of these sections were, thankfully, given over to the cruise coordinator as she spoke over the public address section, so there was a reason for the info dump. But some of them were separate from that character. I ended up skipping most of them anyway, because they just droned on for paragraphs. I’m usually one who reads every word in a book. But these paragraphs had nothing to do with the plot, so I made an exception.

The author apparently loves italics, though not for internal dialogue, which remain unmarked in this novel. All the cruise coordinator’s info dumps were delivered in italics. All the lines in the re-enactment mystery plays were also given in italics. I couldn’t see a connection, nor really a reason, but there it was. Odd.

Still, I really enjoyed the main characters and their world. I think I might be safe with a nice toffee—er, another Sue Henry book sometime soon.

4 of 5 stars.

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