Publisher: Pegasus Books (February, 2016)
Reviewed by Sam Waas
Occasionally we are treated with an historical novel which is both superbly written and meticulously researched. This is uncommon because too much detail can easily drag down the pacing of a book, but such is not the case with the highly readable novel from F.R. Tallis, The Passenger.
It’s 1941 with German submarine U-330 under command of Siegfried Lorenz. And from page one, we’re drawn straight into the life and trials of the U-boat crew. The submarine design and operations are carefully documented, from the squalor imposed by such quasi-primitive living conditions to the personalities of each crew member, how they conduct their varied missions, how they confront the horrors of war.
Mr. Tallis admits being influenced by the great German novel, Das Boot (The Boat) by Buchheim as well as the stunning Wolfgang Petersen film based on the book. Being a fan of both, I can easily see how The Passenger pays homage to them. Anyone who enjoyed the film or who appreciates well written military stories will wish to read this new novel.
Not only are the characters well drawn and scenes of battle and endurance laid out with skill, but the language of the narrative is eloquent and stirring, highly intelligent and literate. Descriptions of the weather, the submarine itself, the day-to-day life of underwater travel, let alone fighting a war under those conditions, are nothing less than brilliant. I was entranced with each beautifully painted scene and event in the novel.
Now to the supernatural story line, and please forgive me, I’ll skirt spoilers as carefully as Captain Lorenz skirts ice floes and sub-hunting destroyers.
A triple-coded message brings the U-330 to rendezvous with a battered tanker carrying two odd passengers, and whether they’re captives or unwilling allies is unknown. One is a British submarine commander, the other a Norwegian professor who studies ancient and cryptic runes. Orders are to not speak or otherwise communicate with either, and to bring them immediately to the sub base at Brest. Things go horribly wrong and both men are killed. And now the ghost of the British sub captain begins to haunt U-330.
I’ve not read any of Mr. Tallis’ other novels, but I see that they are either in the supernatural category or that of psychological suspense. This should suit Mr. Tallis well, in that he’s a clinical psychologist as well as novelist. However, I found some supernatural threads of The Passenger too tenuous to sustain a solidly coherent ghost story.
Although the professor’s fixation is upon arcane runic symbols, they aren’t borne out well in the plot and are almost secondary, in that we don’t learn a great deal of the impetus of such items or how they affect the submarine and crew. It’s also unclear whether the British sub commander was somehow involved in the professor’s endeavors. He’s mostly an enigma and a character which I felt needed far more development.
We may have initially thought that the ghost of the British captain was a concoction from the conscience of Commander Lorenz but the spirt is seen by other crew, so we know he’s a “real ghost” insofar as the story tells. But the ghost’s motives remain unclear, as does the reason behind the British captain’s death and the death of the professor. More exposition into these themes would have helped drive the narrative with a definitive resolution.
And so we’ve got a superb military novel with a slightly less than effective supernatural subplot. I nevertheless strongly recommend The Passenger to anyone who enjoys a first rate military-themed action thriller. The novel’s high points far exceed those which are less well developed.
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