It doesn’t matter if you’ve not read the two earlier encounters with Daniel Beckett, the Soho-based private investigator, raconteur, womaniser, fashionista, badass mofo and international man of mystery – you pretty much get the measure of the man in the opening three chapters of Femme Fatale. He flirts, fights, flirts some more, struts his peacock stuff, takes on a missing persons case for a triad, breaks a few bones and chases tail all over the sordid streets of Piper’s brilliantly-realised 21st century central London.
Think of an internet era incarnation of Fleming’s original James Bond and you’re on the right lines: Daniel Beckett likes the right sort of champagne, the best brew of coffee, the finest cut to his suit and just about every shape of female form he can clap eyes (or other, more intimate parts of his anatomy) on. The girls seem to like him pretty well, too.
When he’s not involved in mutual seduction, Beckett is a go-to guy who showcases a range of talents which more than hint at a history with some kind of covert agency. He’s a dab hand at breaking and entering unobserved, and ten minutes later he’s more than happy breaking someone’s face in tightly-described, blood-and-bone brawling which bring tears to the eyes… of the other guys. Things get really interesting when the stunningly handsome fatal femme of the title turns up; a female Triad assassin who typically wears little more than designer lingerie and has a penchant for being lightly beaten with bamboo.
Which brings us to the sex – or rather, it doesn’t. Just as private eye Beckett flirts and teases, author Piper does the same. Descriptions of the female form in tight-fitting clothing are extensive, but any actual explicit action takes place between the chapters, off-stage. The dialogue may get risqué, but it’s all talk. So nothing to offend, unless the mere suggestion of sex gives you the vapours.
In fact, the continual swooning and eyelash fluttering does wear a bit thin, and the need to detail every single street, alley, restaurant, coffee bar and café hampers the pace of the plot somewhat. It’s Beckett’s trademark, but a little less would allow his other aspects to come to the fore. Piper builds a smart plot, writes crisp, punchy narrative, and has made Beckett into a man of many talents. If he returns for a fourth outing, it might be nice to see more of his tradecraft and cunning, and a bit less of the designer-label obsessed Lothario. More Bourne, less Bond, maybe?
On the plus side, Femme Fatale constructs a credible view of post-Hong Kong Chinese London, of its gang culture and second-generation Chinese social structures. It captures the stink and the shrieks of the sidestreets of Soho and Covent Garden, the ones which tourists seldom see. And it tells a rollicking tale, stuffed with sassy observations, deadly altercations and just a smidgen of righteous retribution.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Femme Fatale by Dominic Piper is available at Amazon
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