Reviewed by Gerard Healy
Michael Robotham’s latest thriller is a roller-coaster ride of suspense and plot twists. The writer has set another story in London, this time with a young, female policewoman as the central character. Her name is Philomena (Phil) McCarthy and she is the estranged daughter of a gangster.
The theme that runs through the book is domestic violence and the main villain is a decorated detective named Darren Goodall. We meet him early on when PC McCarthy and her partner PC Anisha Kohli are called to a unit where Goodall has bashed his mistress, Tempe Brown. Goodall tries throwing his weight around but comes off second-best to McCarthy, who happens to have a black belt in karate. By arresting him, McCarthy makes powerful enemies in the Police and her troubles escalate from there on.
There’s an interesting cast of minor characters in this story, none more intriguing than Tempe Brown, a needy strange woman, who Phil befriends. Slightly implausibly, she attended the same secondary school as Phil and comes with enough emotional baggage for a world tour. Robotham cleverly uses a fish bowl story to encapsulate this character’s effect on others.
Goodall’s wife Alison is another victim and she has the extra complication of worrying about their two children. A previous girlfriend of Goodall has died in unusual circumstances falling over a cliff, so there’s a strong smell of smoke, if not actual fire, around Goodall.
The father daughter relationship can be problematic and McCarthy’s estrangement stems from her parents’ marriage breakup when she was a teenager. Phil’s dad Edward didn’t seem to care much for her at this critical time. However, time is a great healer and a reconciliation of sorts takes place, especially after he has a health scare.
One strength of the writing is the authentic sounding details that Robotham injects into the story. So for example, we get a good idea of the practice of karate, the procedures of forensic science in murder cases and the day-to-day routines of cops on the beat among others. I liked his reference to “paperwork is the bane of a copper’s life (filling in) forms after LOBs from the public (9). LOBs are loads of bollocks. The twisty labyrinth of the law is exposed and if these areas are not always technically correct, it sounds feasible enough to the lay person.
Another positive is the ability of Robotham to build up tension. The scene at the unit where the confrontation between the police and Goodall takes place is one example, as is the scene at McCarthy’s internal Police interview over a botched arrest. The relative powerlessness of victims of domestic violence is also conveyed well, building up our sympathy for these unfortunate women and their dependent children. In the Acknowledgements, Robotham lists the appalling statistics on domestic violence and says if it was terrorism we would have done something by now (403).
I thought that Robotham stretched the plausibility of some events at times. McCarthy’s fiancé Henry has a complete about turn in his affections near the story’s end and this seemed like a touch of magic dust to me. Then there was the conspiracy ring inside the Police: able to bury evidence, intimidate witnesses, murder a journalist and smooth the path for insiders. Barely possible at all you’d think (and hope?). Also, the manner of their undoing seemed pretty unlikely I thought.
Finally, the scene where McCarthy breaks into a suspect’s house, finds some vital evidence, loses it and leaves empty-handed. Really! She leaves behind DNA evidence of course, which puts her in the frame when our suspect is brutally killed.
How does Phil the policewoman compare to other literary crime-fighters? I could only think of the young PC Jane Tennyson of Prime Suspect fame as somewhat similar; smart, ambitious and courageous and outnumbered in the boys’ club atmosphere of the time. While the gender balance has since shifted, Phil doesn’t have any female colleagues supporting her. Actually, come to think of it, there aren’t any other female Police at all.
Another longshot comparison is Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise. She is of similar age, an expert at martial arts, resourceful and tough – all attributes Phil shares. Of course, Modesty worked outside the law, but then after Phil is suspended, so too does she. Will Robotham try a new story with Phil, still under suspension from the Police?
The story is told from McCarthy’s viewpoint and this first-person narrative generally works quite well. One observation is that no reference is made to the Covid-19 outbreak, so events occur as if there was no pandemic happening. While the pace is a little uneven at times, this is an engaging story from one of the best crime writers at work today: recommended.
Michael Robotham, who lives in Sydney, has twice won the UK’s prestigious Gold Dagger award for Good Girl, Bad Girl and Life and Death. He was an investigative journalist working across America, England and Australia before publishing his debut novel The Suspect (2004), which sold over a million copies world-wide.
When You Are Mine
by Michael Robotham