FOURTH DAY, Alison and Busby, £19.99, 9780749008154 (HB)
KILLER INSTINCT, Busted Flush Press, $15, 9781935415138 (PB)
First time I met Charlotte “Charlie” Fox, she was bleeding out in a forest during the opening pages of the excellent thriller, Second Shot. By the end of that book, she had become one of my favourite thriller characters. There were several reasons for this. One was the fact that she spoke with such an authoritative voice on the world of close protection, and the second was the fact that she was a truly impressive protagonist and one of the most rounded women characters I had encountered in crime fiction.
So it was with great anticipation that I opened Zoe Sharp’s latest novel to feature Fox, Fourth Day (Allison and Busby).
The novel opens with Charlie in deep trouble. Something’s gone wrong, and she’s waiting for her captors to arrive. We’re picking up hints of trouble, and we know things are going to be bad, but what we can’t figure out is how or why Charlie got into this situation in the first place. And it’s a credit to author Sharp that she so skilfully makes us question everything we think we know in that brilliant opening sequence.
In Fourth Day Charlie and her team have been hired to pull a man out of a mysterious desert cult after he went undercover several years previously. But as the mission progresses, they come to realise that maybe the man they’re looking for has become one with the cult he was looking to expose, and they find themselves needing to discover how and why this could have happened. After all, Thomas Witney went in looking to prove the cult was responsible for the death of his son, and that’s not the kind of thing you can quickly or easily forgive.
But there’s more going on here than an intriguing plot, and where Sharp separates herself from so many thriller contemporaries is the sheer depth she gives to her protagonist. While the argument can – and should – be made that Charlie is a far more effective hero than many male characters in similar genres, she is also clearly defined, never once feeling like a male character in female clothing. Charlie is utterly convincing both in her profession and herself. Throughout the course of this book – and its hard not to talk in depth about some of the many hurdles Sharp throws in her character’s path, although to do so would take away much of the drama so expertly handled – Charlie faces decisions that Jack Reacher could never dream of and deals with them in a way that is at once heartbreaking and utterly in line with dangerously capable character Sharp has spent many novels defining.
Add to this a conclusion that’s going to leave the Fox Faithful (and even newcomers to the series) with their jaws dropped, and you have one of the most emotionally honest and yet adrenaline-pumping thrillers of the past few years.
Which makes it interesting to go back in time and re-read Charlie’s first appearance in the now re-issued Killer Instinct (Busted Flush Press)
Charlie’s first appearance is a long cry from her later stateside adventures (I believe she first crossed the Atlantic in First Drop), set in Northern England, with Charlie teaching self-defence to women and recovering from her dismissal from the armed forces after a horrific sexual assault at the hands of several fellow officers. The novel finds Charlie getting involved in bouncer work for a shady nightclub and crossing paths with a serial rapist and murderer.
The tone is removed a little from her later adventures, and there is a more “English” hint to Charlie’s voice here (perhaps those years spent in the States smoothed out the accent some) which makes it feel very different to the novels that were to come. But it’s a solid, very well written debut that shows a lot of promise which Sharp would later fulfil and possibly surpass. The urban English setting is nicely realised, and grimy enough to make the reader’s skin crawl on occasion, particularly Charlie’s work at the Adelphi Nightclub. And even so early in the series, the action is so well choreographed that you believe every bone crunching impact on the page.
Killer Instinct is a sharp, punchy read; a brutally confident start to a series that would continue to evolve in the best possible ways. Busted Flush Press are going to be reprinting the early Fox novels over the next year or so, and you’d be well advised to check them out and get acquainted with one of the most well-defined and convincing series protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time.
Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 04/08/10