In The Spotlight: T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell

In The Spotlight A-LHello, All,

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


Filed under Kiss and Tell, T.J. Cooke

19 responses to “In The Spotlight: T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell

  1. I like the sounds of this one, Margot. Thanks for your thoughtful review.

    • Angela – It is an interesting book and I really do like the Jill Shadow character. This book actually is just a bit reminiscent of your own series in that the issues Cooke addresses are complex and difficult and do not have an easy solution. I hope you’ll like it if you get a chance to read it.

  2. This does sound interesting. Available in the US yet? I did not have any success at Amazon.

  3. Margot: In Canada we appear to be groping toward decriminalization of marijuana. If it happens I wonder if the drug trade in other drugs will be decreased when marijuana is easily available.

    • Bill – That is a fascinating question! I am no kind of expert on the issue but there probably will be effects on the trade in other drugs. What I’ve read (and as I say, I am most emphatically not an expert) suggests that in the Netherlands, where cannabis is legal, the use of it hasn’t led to an increase in harder drugs. But I’d have to do a lot more research to feel on firm ground with this. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Canada. There are some movements towards the same thing in the U.S. and if Canada opts for decriminalising marijuana, I wonder what effect that may have on U.S. decriminalisation movements.

  4. This is an author completely unknown to me. I lived in The Netherlands and although what you said is true, walking through the Red Light District is decidedly unpleasant. If it’s going to be legal, I think it needs to be widely legal rather than creating these pockets of darkness.

    • Patti – I hope you’ll get the chance to try Cooke’s work and that if you do, you’ll enjoy it. You make a compelling point about Amsterdam’s Red Light District too. I honestly don’t have the answers as to what needs to be done about the drugs situation. As you say, zones are not a really good answer. ‘Lock ’em all up and throw away the key’ doesn’t seem to solve the problem either. And I honestly don’t see how one could stop growers, ‘lab workers’ and shippers who are determined to provide the ‘product.’ Not when it’s such a lucrative trade. I hope that if we at least keep talking about it and looking at the problem from many perspectives, we can come to some sort of solution.

  5. Margot, thank you for such an insightful review. The most important thing is that readers find ‘Kiss and Tell’ enjoyable and entertaining, and that Jill Shadow is an engaging character. That being said, the drugs theme is at its core, and involved substantial research. If it helps to progress an open and honest debate on this complex and sometimes taboo issue then I’m happy to have contributed. You are quite right, there are no easy answers, but the legacy of ill thought out legislation is taking a woeful toll on countless lives. Many senior law enforcement professionals agree that something has to change… TJ Cooke []

    • Tim – You make two important points here. One is that any crime fiction novel is only as good as its plot and characters. Doesn’t matter much what the themes are, if the plot is not well-done and the characters flat, readers won’t be engaged. That said, you’re quite right that as to the drugs problem, there’s no easy way to solve it. As your novel shows, poorly-written laws don’t help. Neither does arresting every single user (as if that were even possible). Neither does ignoring the problem and letting it ‘sort itself out.’ It won’t. As you say, something has to change and the question is how we will debate that change and what will come out of that discussion.

  6. I very much like crime novels that take on these kinds of complex issues. Finding that balance between entertainment and exploring the issues meaningfully is a delicate task, but when it comes off, it can be extremely powerful.

    Jill sounds like a great female protagonist – strong but human, and clearly a fighter. Am looking forward to giving this one a go 🙂

    • Mrs. P – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It can be very difficult to pull off a solid exploration of a difficult issue within the context of a well-written story, but in my opinion Cooke has done it successfully. And Jill Shadow is indeed a fighter. She’s believable too. I hop that if you get the chance to read this, you’ll enjoy it.

  7. It’s not a subject that normally appeals – drug trafficking but you make the books sound interesting. It sounds like the writer has managed to get the right amount of balance in relation to the depiction of violence which can be very difficult to do.

    • Sarah -Normally I wouldn’t reach first for a book that treats the drugs trafficking issue either. But Cooke treats it by looking at the effects on the various people involved. That makes the story much more human. And yes, Cooke is realistic about the violence in the drug trade without being brutal or going overboard with it.

  8. The mess we’ve made of the so called war on drugs saddens me – and this is one subject I do avoid if possible in my reading. i have come to believe strongly that all drugs – soft, hard and in between – should be cheaply available in the same way that alcohol is. It’s not that I am a drug user or condone drug use but prohibition has proven astonishingly unsuccessful and its by-product – the crimes associated with drugs being illegal – cause us all more harm and cost than the drugs themselves could ever do. I don’t have such strong positions on many issues but because I do on this particular subject I tend to avoid fiction in which it appears as I only end up arguing with the inanimate book and muttering under my breath.

    • Bernadette – There’s no doubt about it that our drug policies haven’t been successful. People who want drugs get them. People still grow, synthesise and manufacture them. And there are a lot of sleazy and bottom-feeding people who benefit from the drugs trade. They and their ilk have indeed caused an awful lot of misery and worse. I live about a 45-minute drive – maybe an hour – from the border with Mexico and evidence of the harm you mention is all over the place. I don’t condone drug use either but there has to be a better way to manage the issue than what we’ve got.
      I know what you mean too about having a strong opinion on a topic and then reading about that topic. If characters or the book’s tone take a different view it can just end up being infuriating.

    • Bernadette, I couldn’t agree more. A central premise of the narrative is that it is the very illegality of controlled substances that has spread their harm in such a wicked and wanton way… resulting in large-scale trafficking, dealing, money-laundering, corruption and collusion, some of it involving those who actually purport to be trying to ‘solve’ the issue.
      Jill discovers this for herself in the book, through her own experiences. Her seemingly flippant exchanges with court usher Mary perhaps ram this point home as much as anything.
      I wanted to tackle the issue, not in a pious or lecturing way, but via what is hopefully an engaging and suspenseful story.
      I think you will find that your own views are echoed throughout the book’s pages and I would be pleased to hear from you if you get a chance to read it.

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