NR: The Passenger

Clinical psychologist Frank Tallis is probably best known as author of the Liebermann Papers, a series of crime novels set in Vienna at the beginning the 20th Century and relating the exploits of psychiatrist Max Liebermann and police inspector Oskar Reinhardt, recently brought to life for the small screen by the BBC as Vienna Blood. Before Leibermann, Tallis wrote a couple of novels that elude easy categorisation and one of which, Sensing Others, is reviewed elsewhere on this site. And between 2011 and 2018 the author took a break from Liebermann to produce four horror novels under the byline F. R. Tallis.

You could make a case for the last of these novels, The Passenger, being a reinvention of Dracula’s voyage aboard The Demeter, albeit there is no vampire. It is 1941 and German submarine U-330, commanded by Siegfried Lorenz, is sent to a location off the coast of Iceland, there to take delivery of two prisoners who are to be brought back to submarine’s base at Brest. The prisoners are British submarine commander Sutherland and Norwegian academic Professor Grimstad, who is rumoured to be working on a weapon that could change the course of the war, and their transportation has been ordered by a high ranking SS officer. But somehow Sutherland has secured a gun and manages to kill them both. In the aftermath of this incident, strange events take place on U-330, with the suggestion that Sutherland is haunting the boat. Back in Brest Lorenz learns that Grimstad was an expert in runes. When the submarine returns to sea, the incidents escalate.

I have mixed feeling about this book. Tallis is superb at bringing to the page an idea of how life must have been in the cramped conditions of a U-boat, the claustrophobia and continuous tension, the horror of being inside a metal tube hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean, and with any number of things that could go wrong and turn your submarine into a sarcophagus. He has obviously researched submarine warfare thoroughly and the naval battles U-330 takes part in seem totally plausible, and at times we almost root for the Germans.

Tallis is excellent at drawing characters, with Lorenz and his crew not so much fanatical Nazis and patriots as ordinary men trying to do a hard job to the best of their ability and hoping to get out of the war alive. Contrary to the book’s back cover blurb, Lorenz is not a maverick SS officer, and he expresses no anti-war sentiments, though Tallis allows him the humanity necessary to forbid the execution of enemy sailors in the water after their ships have been sunk. Similarly all of the other Germans, with the exception of the SS, seem to have no real feelings about the war they are fighting, express nothing either way regarding the course their country has taken, which I guess is a problem for me, as I could have done with having my Germans a little bit more obviously the bad guys. When it comes to having German fighting men as protagonists, F. Paul Wilson gets the balance right in The Keep. I’m not sure Tallis does here.

The supernatural effects are commendably low key, unsettling by virtue of their accumulation rather than anything spectacular in the special effects department. It all adds to the story, wringing every last ounce of tension out of the circumstances in which U-330’s crew find themselves. Here is where I have another reservation. Grimstad is an expert in runes, which lets Tallis drag in Himmler’s interest in the occult, but runes while they appear don’t really seem that central to what is taking place; an ordinary haunting would be just as credible. The runic element is under-utilised, feels like nothing more than a pretext for what takes place. When all is said and done, the supernatural aspects do feel tacked on to a story that would have worked as well if not better without them. I could even make a case for it all taking place inside Lorenz’s head, though not a strong one.

Ultimately this is a book that is fun to read, but for me didn’t deliver a resolution worthy of the material, in fact proving all to be much ado about nothing. I enjoyed the trip, but wasn’t at all taken with the destination. A book that promised more than it delivered; that was subtle and involving as regards the details, strong on atmosphere, but weak on the broader strokes of narrative.

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