It is a feature of a Crime Writers Association judge’s life to endure tedium in the name of fairness, of just-in-case-it-might-improvery, and occasional irritable bouts of Who Accepted This for Publication? Episodes of explicit torture and pornographic descriptions of the abuse of women and children written under the sign of free speech and artistic pushing-the-envelope (Jo Nesbo, I’m thinking of you) can lead to a book being put aside as unfit for purpose. I may never read another book by Patricia Cornwell, and I hope not to read another franchised-dead-author’s post-mortem fiction written by somebody else (David Lagercrantz and your ilk take note. Special exemption for Kingsley Amis, although he’s dead, too.)
Before you ask where I’m going with this, I’ll reveal that I’ve recently read a self-published thriller of which I think very well, and it made me reflect on the advantages that ‘properly’ edited (by an agent, a publisher’s reader, or a reviewer looking for a subject) and published books enjoy as of right because their endorsement carries weight. The name ‘Christopher MacLehose’ on a book’s cover makes me sit up straight, as do translations by ‘Sian Reynolds’, ‘Charlotte Barslund’, and ‘Frank Wynne’. By contrast, I trawl Netgalley, that wonderful source, on the lookout for authors with foreign names who might be new on the scene, hitherto unknown, whose voices may be a complete surprise. Mostly, of course, they’re not.
So what of Cascade, which has no authoritative endorsement by a publisher, or writers’ puffs, only reviews and only on Amazon (so far appreciative); and more or less nothing but word of mouth (how I came to read it) to help a new author whose grip on the conventions of the international thriller are excellent, whose twists are a treat, and whose young heroine has something in common with Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike. Shani Bălcescu has just arrived at St. Aquinas College in Oxford, elected to a Fellowship immediately after finishing a B.A., with a Ph.D. in front of her when one of those life-changing telephone calls summons her to Prague and her dying father, or, perhaps, step-grandfather, since Andrei is her mother’s step-father. Except that he isn’t, or, wasn’t. Nor, Shani learns, is she from Rwanda, and neither was her mother, who died at twenty, with her husband in a car crash. Her father was a Romanian who emigrated to Prague. Is all of this straightforward? Of course not. It’s mainly not true, either. Andrei had thought there would be time to explain, but time has run out for him. He was a linguistic anthropologist who worked in East Africa, but in his dying delirium he speaks of a West-African country here called Séroulé, near Benin and Ghana, as might be, say, Togo, though the waters are nicely muddied. It is only when Shani opens Andrei’s safe that the truth begins to take shape. Harper is good on the displacement Shani suffers when the shock of her identity reveals that she isn’t who she thinks she is. But who she is is even more shocking. Her personal story turns out to be political, and she finds herself a wanted woman.
It’s probably impossible now to write calmly about anything in Sub-Saharan Africa (not that the Maghreb is a hotbed of peace and tranquillity), and this thriller is well aware of the corruption, the violence, the tribalism, and the rape of the countryside as well as those who live in it. Harper quietly lists the ways in which our first world greed for rare metals for our mobile phones drives a kind of investment that is no investment at all, just pillage. He doesn’t preach, doesn’t spend a lot of time on the case against us (and none at all on the recent spree of spending by the Chinese so they can feed their population at the expense of the African locals), he just reminds us, in case we’d forgotten, or didn’t know. Shani sees that she will have unexpected decisions to make, but the curtain comes down, as it must, before she and her journalist fiancé count their chickens. Perhaps we’ll meet them again in a next outing. Perhaps Peter Harper will find another subject. I look forward to whatever he does next, and hope to find myself staying up as late reading his future book as I did reading this one.
Peter Harper, Cascade (November 2016)