This is a complicated novel. And a complicated review. Stick with me… There’s an awful lot about this book which I adore. Some of the writing does exactly what the author intended and stops you dead in your tracks, either choked with emotion or wide-eyed flabbergasted at what just happened. For instance: ‘The stars themselves spat at Stoner. On good nights, they sparkled and they smiled. On sad nights, they gently wept and hid themselves away in silent safety behind the hazy gauze of heaven. But not tonight. Tonight, the stars spat at Stoner…’
And I haven’t gone anywhere near the sudden death, weird sex and philosophical investigations yet. Or the deft dialogue which veers from chuckle-butt banter one second to murderous menace the next. Or the oppressive sense of claustrophobia which cloaks much of this first book in the Killing Sisters series. Or the wide-eyed action sequences which come blasting out of the blue, visceral and violent in context and intensity. Like I said, this is a complicated novel.
And just like (complicated) real life it is populated with intriguing and ambiguous characters, most of whom you simply can’t trust. Although I’m pretty sure that JJ Stoner, the protagonist who is investigating a series of bloody murders, is a good guy. Well, as good a guy as he can be, given that he’s also been responsible for more than a few dead bodies in his time as a mercenary, contract killer and now unofficial investigator. Stoner’s occasional oppo and another ex-military man, Shard, also appears to be a good guy to have on your side in a fight. Although appearances can be deceptive…
A Last Act Of Charity is ambitious in its reach – maybe a bit too ambitious for a first novel, but you’ve gotta love a trier. There are some sequences which are as satisfyingly testosterone-soaked as any Jack Reacher adventure, and then some which are as bleakly subtle as über-nuanced Japanese noir. For every alpha male with a gun and a hard-on, there’s an equal, often opposing feminine force: frequently just as effective and half as smart again. The writing is clever, the plotting is convoluted and the outcome is so utterly well-delivered that it caught me completely off guard. It’s rare that I experience an out-loud OMG moment, but the dénouement certainly shattered my normal reading silence.
There are some less satisfying sections however, and now we reach the disclosure of interest dept: I’m married to the author. I’ve read ‘Charity’ maybe a half-dozen times all told, in varying stages of development. I’m probably just a tiny bit biased. But then, maybe not as much as you’d imagine. I’ve reviewed books for nearly two decades and am an editor by trade. I didn’t give ‘Charity’ any less of a hard time than I would any other first novel which landed in my lap. So these are my honest opinions of the finished book. At first draft I described it as ‘patchy’ (and I thought that was being pretty kind), but it possessed poise and promise and was worth the effort.
In its final published form, after extensive revisions and editing, Charity is still a challenging read. It won’t appeal to folk who enjoy cutsie, comfy, cosy crime or unthinking, by-the-numbers thrillers. The author has attempted to create an entire universe of engaging characters who – although they may be murderers and monsters – behave in a credible fashion. There is a significant mystery here, and much to wrap your head around. Like the best Nordic noir, it’ll take a couple of readings to get things straight in your head. And even then, there are still some aspects of the story which manage to mystify me…
There are also a couple of sections which could’ve done with tighter editing, where we spend a little too long in conversation or on stage with Stoner at the blues club, and these interrupt the flow and pace of the plot somewhat. You also need to pay attention throughout: if you’re a half-hearted (or half-witted) reader and are easily distracted then you may miss vital hints and subtle suggestions which are important later on.
The writing has been compared to that of Elmore Leonard (can’t see it myself), Lee Child (understandable given the superficial machismo of the central characters), and Derek Raymond (spot on, that man). Those readers already familiar with the author from his non-fiction writing will need to forget what they think they know: this is very different indeed. If you’re seeking something to compare it to, then perhaps The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo comes close.
More than anything else, A Last Act Of Charity succeeds in telling a self-contained, satisfying story with no small amount of style. It also establishes a compelling cast of characters with whom I definitely want to spend more time. The Dirty Blonde and Bili the Bass; Mr Tran the inscrutable Oriental; Stoner, Shard and Stretch and even the freaky sisters themselves – their universe and all their dirty little (big) secrets are sneakily intriguing.
The really good news is that the sequel, The Corruption Of Chastity, is already written and it’s an altogether more accomplished novel, better in every important respect. But you’ll have to wait a year to read that one. For now, A Last Act Of Charity should give you plenty to think about…