Cold Grave

COLD GRAVE
Kathryn Fox
Macmillan, $27.99

In this latest Kathryn Fox novel featuring Australian forensic physician Anya Crichton, we are cocooned aboard the luxury cruise ship Paradisio, sailing the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Australia.

Anya, who has recently completed some arduous work in the US, is travelling with her young son, Ben, and former husband, Martin, who has custody of the boy. She is hoping for a relaxing journey and some quality time with Ben.

However, on the first day out from Honolulu, Chinese teenager Lilly Chan is found unconscious in a pool-deck towel cupboard and, despite the best efforts of Anya and the ship's medical people, dies.

After learning there had been a wild, boozy, and maybe drug-driven party featuring some questionable sex in and outside a downmarket cabin the previous night, Anya wonders whether Lilly was the victim of a date-rape drug and the men who used it. Prompting this thought is an unholy group of men from a ten-pin bowling club whom she suspects may be "toolies" - older men sexually preying on teenage girls and young women.

With Paradisio's security chief, David FitzHarris, a former New York policeman, she tries to establish the cause of Lilly's death and whether the bowlers are linked to it. Then a crew member is suddenly kneecapped. Is this connected to Lilly's death?

Anya and FitzHarris discover signs that rivalry between members of the family that owns the line has enmeshed some officers and crew aboard Paradisio. Topping this off is a possible terrorist attack ashore against some of the family.

By now, Anya's hoped-for holiday has turned into a cruise from hell.

Fox handles her numerous plotlines well, while her characters - such as obnoxious, aggressive bowler Genny; Lilly's gentle, sheltered sister, Jasmine; and Wes, a youthful and brilliant computer hacker - dance appropriate attendance to the good and humane Anya.

According to the publisher, Fox, an Australian doctor with an interest in forensics, has extensively researched what it says is the "truth behind [cruising] shipboard life", revealing a "murky world of sexual assault, drugs and violence".

Whether this "truth" is as widespread as the publisher says, I don't know. But in Fox's tale, a disturbing and unsavoury world has been vividly created and, if accurate, it makes this crime novel something of a rarity: one with a social message.

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