Book Review - The Gentleman Host by Dwight Norris
I ran across a gem of a first novel recently that kept me up past the proverbial bed time... The Gentleman Host: A Cruise Ship Nightmare by Dwight Norris. Norris has combined an interesting plot with realistic characters to create a story that will have me looking over my shoulder the next time I take a cruise.
Dusty Flanagan is a retired Marine and cop who is quite happy watching life go by with his wife and his dog. Sam Murphy, his former partner, gives him a call asking for a favor. Sam is working security for a cruise line, and he's quietly investigating a number of cases where single female passengers mysteriously disappeared while cruising. The assumption is that they fell overboard, but there are no bodies, no suspects, and no reasons to believe that criminal intent is involved. Sam wants Dusty to just look over the information and offer some opinions. Dusty really doesn't want to get back into the business, but their friendship wins out and he meets with Sam. While there's no obvious connection, Dusty's gut tells him that the possibility exists that a serial killer could be behind the deaths. Of course, cruise lines don't want to give up any info that could point blame in their direction. Dusty gambles during a face-to-face meeting with one of the cruise executives, and he's able to get access to passenger and crew manifests. Cross-matching names appear to lead to a dead end, but Dusty isn't one to give up so easy...
I really enjoyed how Norris structured the story. While you have Dusty and Sam trying to figure out if an actual crime was committed, Norris is following the actions of the killer on board the cruise ship, acting under the cover of a "gentleman host", an older unattached male hired by the cruise lines to be available to a number of older women cruisers who are also traveling on their own. His job is to be friendly, entertain the women at meals, and to guide tours at ports of call. As he's learning about his charges, he's using some personal warped criteria as to who should be the next to take a midnight swim. Norris keeps escalating the tension as Sam and Dusty get closer to uncovering the identity of the killer, as well as trying to stop him before another woman meets an untimely demise. He also brings the Dusty character to life in such a way that I could see this being the start of an ongoing series.
I'll be interested to see if Norris has another novel waiting to be written. I wouldn't hesitate to put it at the top of my pile of to-be-read books.