Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Drugs trafficking and the drugs trade have been a part of our lives for a very long time. They’ve also been woven into a lot of crime fiction novels. The reality is that there aren’t any easy answers to the question of what to do about the drugs trade. It’s not enough to simply arrest everyone caught with drugs. There’s more to it than that. It’s not enough to pour all available resources into patrolling airports, bus terminals, train stations and docks. Again, there’s more to it than that. I don’t have all the answers but today, let’s take a look at a novel that acknowledges the complexity of the drugs trade. Let’s turn the spotlight on T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell.
Kiss and Tell begins in a safe house, where London attorney Jill Shadow has had to be sequestered. She’s discovered that her twelve-year-old daughter Hannah has gone missing and is desperate to help find her. But for her own and Hannah’s safety, she has to remain at the hotel where she’s in hiding. In order to help focus the search, Shadow’s bodyguard/provider, whom she calls Ralph, suggests that she use a recorder and tell the story of the events that led up to her sequester. The idea is that as she goes over the events, Shadow may think of something that will lead the authorities to her daughter.
As Shadow retells the events that brought her to the safe house we learn that the main action in the story begins with the case of Bella Kiss. Kiss is a Hungarian national who’s been arrested at Heathrow Airport on suspicion of drugs smuggling. She admits to having the drugs, but she won’t reveal anything about who paid or coerced her to bring the drugs into the country. And yet it’s very clear that Kiss is in deep trouble; in fact she fears for her life. On the one hand, Shadow wants to defend her client as best she can. On the other, her client is uncooperative. So Shadow begins to try to put the pieces together herself.
In the meantime Shadow’s personal life has also gotten very complicated. Her ex-husband Jimmy Briscoe, who is Hannah’s father, has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for drugs trafficking. He tells Shadow that he wants to build a relationship with Hannah, who doesn’t know about his criminal background. Shadow doesn’t trust Briscoe and doesn’t want him anywhere near Hannah despite his claims that he’s changed. As if the situation with Briscoe wasn’t difficult enough, Shadow discovers that he seems to know a lot about the Bella Kiss case. Briscoe says he wants to help her with that case too but he doesn’t have a history of being reliable.
Bit by bit, Shadow begins to uncover the truth about Bella Kiss, about how she got involved in the drugs trade and about whom she’s protecting. Then there’s a murder. That murder turns out to be connected to an earlier murder. As Shadow gets closer to the answers she’s looking for, she attracts some unwelcome attention from those who are behind the drugs ring Kiss was working for. Now she has to try to keep herself and her daughter safe until she’s able to make a credible link between the crimes and those responsible.
In this novel Cooke raises some important questions and issues regarding drugs trafficking and the drugs trade. We see that like most complex problems, this one doesn’t have an easy solution. There’s certainly the question of how to stop those who smuggle. But as we learn Bella Kiss’ history, we also see that there are important reasons people get involved in the drugs trade to begin with and those too need to be addressed. There’s also the issue of the people ‘at the top’ in government, law enforcement and business who profit – hugely – from the trade. And of course, if there weren’t a market for drugs, they wouldn’t be so profitable, so there’s the question of what to do about those who buy and use drugs. Cooke shows us these complexities and doesn’t gloss over them with pat solutions.
Another important element in this novel is the character of Jill Shadow. Although she has a law degree, she doesn’t have a moneyed background. She’s raised Heather mostly on her own, and in fact went to night school to get her degree. She’s risen through the ranks at the law firm where she works, so she has a very different perspective from some of the attorneys at the top who are from what’s sometimes been called ‘public-school backgrounds.’ She’s a down-to-earth person who in many ways is one of ‘the rest of us.’ She’s a strong character but she’s hardly perfect. She makes her share of mistakes and has her share of regrets too. As she tries to manage a case that is much larger and more dangerous than she could have imagined, it’s not hard to wish her well.
Shadow’s relationship with her daughter is also worth mentioning here. She and Hannah have a strong bond. It’s obvious they love one another and Shadow does her best to be a caring and attentive mother. But that doesn’t mean either is perfect. That relationship is a strong thread throughout the novel and it adds to the tension as Shadow tries desperately to find a way to locate Hannah and make sure she’s safe. Oh, and don’t worry: this isn’t one of those ‘mad serial killer who abducts and tortures young girls’ kinds of stories. I won’t give away spoilers but I promise this one isn’t one of ‘those novels.’
This is a thriller, and one of the elements that add to the ‘thriller’ tension is that Shadow doesn’t know whom to trust. Several people in the novel are not what they seem and working out who the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ are isn’t as easy as it seems. That said though, when we learn who is behind the events and where all of the characters fit in, we learn that their motives are credible.
There’s plenty of action in the story too and the events move quickly. But they are believable. I should also note that although there is violence in the story, it’s not drawn-out brutal violence. Cooke is to be commended for not turning to extreme violence to move the plot along.
The story is told through a combination of flashbacks as Shadow narrates the story of the Bella Kiss case and present-time narration as Shadow shares what it’s like to be at a safe house and what she learns as ‘Ralph’ visits her and updates her. At the end of the novel, when Shadow’s narration catches up with the present, the two timelines merge for the final events. Readers who prefer a strictly chronological order of events will be disappointed. But it’s clear throughout the story what happens when, and all of the events are linked. So the storyline has a logical progression.
Kiss and Tell is a thoughtful thriller (yes, they exist) that raises some disturbing questions about the drugs trade. The plot is believable and so is the action, and some major larger social issues are brought to a very human level. It features a likeable protagonist who has her own share of weaknesses but is refreshingly not ‘haunted by demons.’ But what’s your view? Have you read Kiss and Tell? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight:
Monday 4 February/Tuesday 5 February – Louisiana Bigshot – Julie Smith
Monday 11 February/Tuesday 12 February – The Coroner’s Lunch – Colin Cotterill
Monday 18 February/Tuesday 19 February – Unexpected Night – Elizabeth Daly