Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The ‘hardboiled’ detective has a long history in crime fiction. And in recent decades, the sub-genre has broadened to include all sorts of sleuths, including women. Let’s take a look at one of them today, and turn the spotlight on Zoë Sharp’s Killer Instinct, the first in her Charlie Fox series.
Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox is a former member of Her Majesty’s Special Forces, who now lives near Lancaster. Here’s how she describes what she does:
‘I teach women’s self-defence. Have done for four years now. I use gymnasiums in local schools, indoor badminton courts in leisure centres, and even the converted ballroom of a country house that’s now a women’s refuge.’
That women’s refuge is housed at Shelseley Lodge, which is owned by Trstram Shelseley, a professional masseuse who also has a business in essential oils and aromatherapy. His wife, Ailsa, runs the shelter.
One night, Fox’s friend Clare persuades her to go along for moral support to a karaoke competition at the New Adelphi Club. Fox knows the club, as she used to use one of the floors for her classes. But it’s recently been taken over by new management. She’s not much the ‘clubbing type,’ but Clare finally convinces her.
The competition gets underway, and Clare wins. That’s when Susie Hollins, who’s won the last few competitions, tries to attack Clare. Fox steps in, and Susie ends up on the floor and, soon afterwards, ejected from the club. When the club’s owner, Marc Quinn, finds out about Fox’s intervention, he is persuaded to hire her as part of the club’s security team.
Later the next day, Fox finds out that Susie Hollins has been raped and murdered. Since Susie spent some time at Shelseley Lodge, several of its residents are worried that they’re in danger. And, although Fox tries to reassure them, she can’t promise that they’re wrong.
In the meantime, Fox has taken up her duties at the club, and it’s not long before she suspects that more is going on there than it seems. Little by little, she begins to get clues as to what the club is hiding, and as she does, she finds that someone very ruthless is just as determined that she won’t find out.
Then, there’s another brutal rape and murder, again of a resident of Shelseley Lodge. And it’s clear that Fox herself is targeted as the next victim. If she’s going to stay alive, she’ll have to find out who’s targeting the lodge. In the end, she gets that answer, and finds out how it connects with the Adelphi.
This is a hardboiled story and that fact is an important element. There is plenty of violence, and some of it is ugly. And, while Sharp doesn’t provide each gory detail, readers who dislike violence in their crime fiction will notice that it’s certainly present here. Like many other hardboiled novels, this one doesn’t have a happy ending, where everything is all right again at the end of the story. It isn’t. The lodge, the club, and Fox herself aren’t going to be the same. That said, though, the story isn’t entirely bleak. Fox has a wry sort of wit that comes out from time to time. Here, for instance, two police officers have come by Fox’s home to get her account of what went on between her and Susie Hollins:
‘I’m always wary of the police. You ride a motorcycle and it tends to colour your view of the boys in blue. Still, I suppose it was a nice change to be greeted by a uniform whose opening gambit wasn’t, ‘Are you aware of the national speed limit, madam?’’
As this snippet also shows, the story is told from Fox’s point of view (first person, past tense). So, we do learn a lot about her. She is the daughter of wealthy parents from whom she is estranged. She had intended to stay with Special Forces, but a traumatic experience caused her to leave. In fact, it’s had a tremendous impact on her in other ways, too. That said, though, Fox is not one of those all-too-common dysfunctional sleuths who drown themselves in drink and cannot maintain friendships. She’s well aware of her fragility, and determined to empower herself.
She is also determined to empower others, which is why she teaches the classes she does, and why she has a special interest in the residents of Shelseley Lodge. In the course of the novel, readers learn about some of the techniques she teaches, and some ways to defend oneself. Chief among them is, if at all possible, to de-escalate a situation, so that defending oneself isn’t necessary:
‘I view self-defence like wearing an expensive watch. You don’t keep flashing it about trying to impress people. Instead, you keep it up your sleeve, but in the back of your mind you have the confidence of knowing you have the exact time whenever you need it.’
And, in several scenes in the novel, Fox tries to talk her way out of situations without having to use what she knows. It doesn’t always work.
Killer Instinct takes a look at the underside of a trendy nightclub. It goes behind the scenes of security work, and shows what really happens while everyone’s busy dancing. It’s also the story of a women’s refuge, and the people who depend on that service. It features a tough, flawed, protagonist who’s trying to move on in her life, and trying to help others do the same. But what’s your view? Have you read Killer Instinct? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 29 January/Tuesday, 30 January – Sold – Blair Denholm
Monday, 5 February/Tuesday, 6 February – Laura – Vera Caspary
Monday, 12 February/Tuesday 13 Febuary – The Anderson Tapes – Lawrence Sanders