Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement, and one that I have yet to make. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of Zoe Sharp’s Killer Instinct, a murder-mystery-thriller which I finished reading last night.
Characters: Killer Instinct offers a splendid array of well-defined characters. We get psychotic bouncers; competent policemen; attractive, well-meaning friends; masked hoodlums, creeps, parents with intimacy issues, and, of course, a very nasty knife-wielding killer — or two.
We see them all through the eyes of protagonist Charlie Fox; self-defense instructor, motorcycle enthusiast and perceptive narrator. Here’s her take on a friend’s husband:
Jacob must be in his early fifties, his dark wavy hair streaked through with grey, but he’s one of those men who oozes sexual attraction. Always laughing behind eyes the colour of expensive plain chocolate, and just as tempting. If he could reproduce that kind of chemistry in a lab he’d be a millionaire.
She’s a little less keen in her own modest self-description:
Nondescript shaggy hair, average height, medium build.
The shaggy hair is red, by the way. Several guys make plays of varying intensity for her during the action, so we learn Charlie is more attractive than she seems to let on.
Plot: When Charlie offers to see if her computer-hacker friend can help another acquaintance unlock the password to a computer the acquaintance got under shady circumstances, she’s dragged into a murky, dangerous scenario that puts her at grave risk. Occupied with trying to survive the maelstrom surrounding the computer, which evidently someone thinks has incriminating evidence on it, Charlie is distracted from an even worse threat, which may or may not be connected to the computer.
The plot is strong, and there are plenty of dots to link up. I’m proud to say I figured out about half of it with the clues Zoe provided.
Setting: The action takes place in the small British town of Lancaster, and the nearby bay-side community of Morecambe. Alas, Zoe doesn’t share much about the locations, their beautiful hills and storied architecture — perhaps because as a British novelist, her primary U.K. audience is already well-acquainted with these places.
What I though could’ve been done better: Killer Instinct is a lean, muscular thriller, so perhaps describing the exterior locales would slow things down too much. Nevertheless, a bit of description on the waters of the River Lune or Morecambe Bay, or of Lancaster’s storied ancient architecture could easily be used, imho, to enhance mood, color and foreshadowing.
A basic premise for fiction writers is that we create characters who want something — who want something very much. And then we spend the entire story keeping it from them.
Nick Escalante, in William Goldman’s Heat, for instance, wants one thing — to get his hands on enough money to escape Las Vegas and travel the globe. His various adventures throughout the book all have this one goal at their root — even though more immediate concerns, like survival, are usually center stage.
But that desire, that one thing that he wants, and that continually eludes him, helps make him more real. We’re all striving for something, after all.
I wasn’t too clear on what Charlie wants — what she really, really wants, and that motivates her to continue on through life. Zoe gives us plenty of possible candidates. Charlie could want revenge on her former Army squad-mates who treated her so cruelly. She could want exoneration for the way she was framed and bounced out of the Army. In Charlie’s rich back-story, there are plenty of things that could drive her.
You could perhaps argue that Charlie’s main motivator is that she never wants to be defenseless again, which is why she became a self-defense expert and teacher. Ok, then let’s see her working out on that bag in her apartment until her knuckles bleed, the bag’s fabric starts to give, and her eyes water. Let’s see her inadvertently take it out on a slow student in her self-defense class.
Charlie, Zoe tells us, took ballet lessons as a child. Maybe she wants to get back to that. Maybe she wants the love of her remote father, which is why she falls so hard for the magnetic, powerful Marc Quinn. In creating the compelling and interesting character of Charlie Fox, Zoe has displayed any number of what could be dominant personality drivers. But the action of the story is so all-consuming that what Charlie really wants, and is striving for, seems to have been neglected. That’s something, imho, that could take Charlie from sympathetic and compelling to being truly identifiable.
I also found the title “Killer Instinct” to be a touch generic. Could be the title for any number of thrillers that have killers. Still, it does what a title should — give readers a clue as to what the book contains.
What I thought was good: Action, dialogue and description all flow naturally from the story’s premise and characters. Zoe has a terrific grasp of metaphor. I loved Charlie’s philosophy on self-defense:
I view self-defense 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 that you have the exact time whenever you need it.
I found the understated meaning in “you have the exact time whenever you need it” to be subtly delicious. The book is full of little sparklers like that.
Zoe’s action sequences are the true stars of the novel, vividly written and buttressed with an expert’s insights:
I looked up to see the stump of the bottle again, inches from my face. It was quivering from the sheer effort he was putting into trying to drive it downwards towards me. Into me. Oh shit . . . Leverage is everything. They reckon it takes just eight pounds of pressure to break almost any bone in the human body. I must have applied quite a bit more than that now. I shut out the last lingering doubts and heaved, sideways and down. The boy’s shoulder dislocated with an ease that was mildly surprising. It made a soggy popping sound, like a spoon being pulled out of a bowl of set jelly. I put my shoulder out once, falling off a horse when I was a kid. The pain is indescribable. You can’t escape from it, can’t move anywhere to make it hurt any less. It focuses you utterly and you’ll do anything to make it stop. The boy dropped slowly to his knees, the wild light in his eyes dulling as the biting pain of his injury finally took the edge off whatever was floating him. He let the bottle fall to the floor. I kicked it away.
It’s a testament to the rest of her writing that it’s not upstaged by these terrific sequences. The violence isn’t limited to stab-and-punch, either, like this telephone exchange in which Charlie asks her father, a successful physician, for help:
“May I ask what makes you think I might be able to help?” His voice sounded cold over the phone line. It wasn’t quite the response I’d been hoping for. The tension snapped. “Of course you could help – if you wanted to!” I cried. “How long were you a consultant at Lancaster hospital for heaven’s sake – ten years? You should know everyone there, or didn’t you ever speak to the pathology department?” He chose not to answer that one, asking instead, “Don’t you think the police are perfectly capable of handling something like this without your somewhat amateur interference?” “Probably,” I snapped. “In the meantime someone’s beaten me up, trashed my flat, and threatened to cut my throat. I’m sorry if that doesn’t mean anything to you!” I gave a laugh, more of a half-hysterical yelp. “Of course, how silly of me, I was probably asking for it, wasn’t I?” I slammed the phone down, staring at the pattern of the fabric on the sofa for a few moments, determined not to cry.
Though I have suggested Zoe could have done more with description, where she does describe locations, it’s done smoothly and well, as in this view of the Adelphi Hotel in Morecambe where a lot of the action takes place:
The New Adelphi was a nightclub that had risen phoenix-like from the ashes of the old Adelphi, a crumbling Victorian seaside hotel on the promenade in Morecambe. It had a slightly faded air of decayed gentility about it, like an ageing bit-part film actress, hiding her propensity for the gin bottle under paste jewellery and heavy make-up.
I could take excerpts from the book all day and at random — everything works and I deeply enjoyed it all.
Overall: There is not one wasted word in Killer Instinct. Zoe writes lean and mean, and if she left out some incidental description of old stone churches that Charlie zoomed by on her Suzuki, it doesn’t impact the swift, bright flow of the story. Zoe is a pro, a superb writer with that rare gift — she makes it look easy. I look forward to reading more Charlie Fox novels. As writer, reader and reviewer Killer Instinct gets my highest recommendation.
Good job Zoe!
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Happy literary trails!