Fox fires cruise missile
Australian author Kathryn Fox. Picture: Nick Cubbin.

With the Costa Concordia tragedy claiming 32 lives, the Australian Government rejecting a coroner's recommendation for drug screening following the Dianne Brimble case and TV exposes such as 60 Minute's Ships of Shame revealing the extent of cruise-ship crime and cover-ups, it's fair to say 2012 has seen cruise-ship safety firmly back in the headlines.

But reportage is just one way of highlighting health and safety issues in an industry which, according to figures released by the International Cruise Council Australasia, saw an increase of 34 per cent in the number of Australian cruise passengers in 2011 to 623,294.

There is also fiction. Specifically, the kind of crime fiction that is scrupulous in its reliance on fact and serious in its moral purpose while at the same time being supremely entertaining.

That's the kind of fiction acclaimed Sydney author Kathryn Fox writes - and that's the kind of fiction in her latest novel, Cold Grave.

In September 2002, Australian mother of three Dianne Brimble, 42, died on board the P&O cruise ship Pacific Sky after imbibing a toxic cocktail comprising the drug fantasy and alcohol.

Fox, a qualified medical practitioner whose best-selling novels featuring forensic physician Dr Anna Crichton have been widely lauded for tackling serious issues, says she was stunned by Ms Brimble's death.

"It prompted me to ask why and how that could possibly happen," Fox says on the line from Sydney. So she started researching the wider area of international cruise victims and was horrified by what she found.

According to Fox, sex offenders deliberately target cruises. In some cases, not even the staff and crew can be trusted.

"Although we may think cruise lines screen all their crew and staff, they actually outsource a lot of their hiring to employment agencies," she says.

Fox says these agencies tend to be located in Third World countries - countries which don't have computerised data for sex offenders and violent criminals.

"So the screens they can do are somewhat limited compared to the screens we imagine," she says. "That instils in us a false sense of security."

In Cold Grave, Anna is holidaying with her six-year-old son on board a luxury cruise ship when the body of a young woman is found in a cupboard. As Anna is drawn into the subsequent investigation she discovers a culture of paedophilia, drug and alcohol abuse and corporate cover-ups.

With crew corruption rife, a rising body count and a security chief with a dark secret, Anna must keep all her wits about her just to stay alive. Fox's research included going on a cruise and interviewing staff who were "alarmingly candid". She also found that the legal issues relating to foreign-owned ships in international waters are murky.

"The chances of getting a conviction if a crime is committed on board are very slim," she says. "And of course cruise lines have this vested interest in keeping incidents quiet. Nobody wants the bad publicity."

In many ways, Cold Grave is a variation on the country-house whodunit. But Fox's skill in both informing and entertaining makes her, in the words of fellow best-selling author Kathy Reichs, "a force of nature".

But what made her turn from medicine to writing? "I found out I had a talent for writing in Year 12," she says. "And I got a lot of my marks in medicine with creative writing. I couldn't understand why everyone else wasn't' doing it as it was an easy way to get great marks."

As she practised medicine, she found she was indirectly preparing for a career as a thriller writer.

"When a patient comes to you with symptoms, it's not unlike solving a mystery," she says. "You start taking a history, collecting information and doing tests before coming to a hypothesis."

She soon realised she wanted to write about issues that bothered her but wasn't sure anybody wanted to read about them.

"Then I read Patricia Cornwell's Postmortem and realised people did want to read about those things. It was like suddenly being given permission to write," she says.

Reported sexual assaults aboard cruise liners are few - for example, cruisejunkie.com lists just 41 publicly reported incidents between 2008 and early 2012.

The vast majority of cruise companies provide safe, family-oriented environments but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take precautions.

"Cruise ships are like floating cities," Fox says. "And as with any city, there's an underbelly. The one message I hope people take from Cold Grave would be if you go on a cruise, please take the same precautions you would in any city. Because often we leave our common sense behind when we go on holiday and there's more to cruising than meets the eye."

Cold Grave is published by Macmillan ($27.99). For more information on cruise ship crime, visit internationalcruisevictims.org.

The West Australian

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