Keith Miles is probably best recognised by readers under the pen name of Edward Marston. He writes several well-received historical mysteries spanning the 11th century through to the 19th century. His website is www.edwardmarston.com
Charlotte Alton is classy lady who has tried to distance herself from a past in which she bought and sold information, provided new identities for people and flirted with various intelligence agencies. Simon Johanssen turns up out of the blue to drag her back to her former life where she was known as Karla. She is given an assignment for him - to get inside an experimental prison to take out someone who, according to prison records, is not even there.
This debut thriller is packed with arresting ideas and characters but it asks a great deal of its readers. Can they really accept that any British government would sanction an experiment in which a private company takes over a derelict area and houses five thousand inmates who operate on a self-regulation basis? In theory, it has excellent facilities and a guarantee of the safety and well-being of its residents; in practice, it’s run by hardened criminals who seem able to maim, torture and kill whenever the mood takes them. And it often does.
Under a fake identity, Johanssen agrees to go inside this hell-hole even though the gangster who runs it – John Quillan - has a reason to want him dead. Inexplicably, when Johanssen is brutally beaten and brought out of the place for his own safety, he wants to go back. There is escalating violence that reaches such a pitch at times that it becomes gratuitous and tips the book into a horror novel.
Karla, meanwhile, with the help of a not-so-tame CID officer, is trying to find out the real reason why the target has been incarcerated there. And she’s also fending off demands from MI5 and from various shadowy individuals at the end of a phone. Layer after layer of deceit are slowly exposed. As the story moves to an explosive climax, she has to run around frantically to tie off a whole succession of loose ends that have been left hanging.
The fierce thrust of the novel helps to atone for some of its defects. It’s a dark, pacy, compelling and utterly uncompromising tale about people trying to outrun their respective demons. And in Charlotte / Karla, it has a gutsy protagonist with an individual voice. I hope that we see her again.
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