Distress Signals | Catherine Ryan Howard | 2016, Pb 2017 | Corvus | 352p | Bought copy | Buy the book
It’s taken long enough but at last Hollywood has shown interest in one of Adam Dunne’s screenplays. But that was a draft and now Adam has left himself only a week to submit the polished version. His girlfriend Sarah is off to Barcelona for a conference for a few days. As he drops her off at the airport (in Cork, Ireland), Sarah tells him that she’ll hold off calling him, giving him the chance to finish the manuscript. She’s true to her word, after a text to let him know that she’s landed and in her hotel, Adam doesn’t hear from her again. Ever.
Adam and Sarah’s parents become increasingly worried, especially when Sarah’s work tells them that there was no conference. Her best friend also looks like someone with something to hide. And then Sarah’s passport arrives in the post, with the briefest of notes in Sarah’s handwriting. Looking in to it, trying to get the police to help, Adam discovers that this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. Another woman, Estelle, disappeared some months before on the cruise ship Celebrate. When Adam finds an unexpected connection between Sarah and the ship, he knows where he must head next. His anxious literary agent is going to have to wait.
I’d heard some great things about Distress Signals and I couldn’t wait to read it. It did not disappoint. And this was a big relief because I’ve found psychological thrillers extremely hit or miss over the last year. Distress Signals is one of the standout hits. The books grips from the very first disturbing, exhilarating chapter, with the tension built in expert stages as we follow Adam’s increasingly worried investigation into Sarah’s disappearance. Sarah inevitably remains something of an enigma but we learn more and more about Adam as he too is forced to face some uncomfortable home truths. The police investigation doesn’t help as they constantly remind him that grown adults can quite often simply walk away. If there’s a crime, Adam is going to have to prove it.
The scenes on the ship are so well done. This is a cruise from hell for Adam and I can’t say that it inspired me to buy a ticket any more than Sarah Lotz’s Day Four did. The confined and isolated location, the infinite blackness of the surrounding ocean, the secrets hidden in cabins, the inside knowledge of the crew, all of this adds up to the perfect setting for a crime novel. It certainly adds to the mood of menace.
The novel doesn’t just focus on Adam, there are two other narrative lines, one of which presents an extraordinary portrait of a killer. I thought this was brilliantly done. It’s not often I’ve been made to care for a killer, or to understand their way of thinking. This does that very well indeed. I did guess the end a little in advance but otherwise I found Distress Signals to be one of the most enjoyable crime thrillers I’ve read so far this year, not least for the author’s style and voice.
One thing I must say, though, is that I really, really don’t like that the book is subtitled on some sites with ‘An Incredibly Gripping Psychological Thriller with a Twist You Won’t See Coming’. This is totally unnecessary and does a very good book a disservice. Distress Signals should not be read for twists, they’re not its purpose nor the reason for its excellence. Also, I did see the twist coming so it’s also not accurate. And the fact that I did, didn’t matter at all. Catherine Ryan Howard is a fine writer and it’s hard to believe that Distress Signals is a debut novel – it is so confident and assured and I can’t wait to see what comes next.