Space scientist, trainee astronaut – and now published novelist at the ripe age of 61. Hania Allen has led a varied and interesting life.
Technically Jack in the Box is her second novel, but her print debut, as the first was download-only. It caught my attention because of the theatreland setting, but in fact has a far more grittier theme in which drugs, rent boys and corruption in high places figure strongly.
There are two parallel investigations, triggered by the brutal murder of Max Quincey, a theatre director who is about to revive the play which was his greatest success. His killing mirrors that of three rent boys fifteen years earlier, when the play has its first outing. DCI Von Valenti is put in charge of a case which is complicated by the fact that the latest victim is the brother of her senior officer.
But Von’s career has been troubled, and she has a lot to prove. She sees the connection with the earlier deaths, and makes it her mission to seek justice for the boys even when the odds stack up against her.
The jack in the box in the title is exactly that: a chilling, sinister piece of merchandizing which became a cult during the play’s first run and seems set for a repeat performance. One of the toys was found at each of the earlier murders, and another beside Max Quincey’s body.
Allen’s main strength lies in her characters. Von Valenti herself is an interesting mix of tough and vulnerable, especially when her past rears up to bite her. I especially liked Rose, the theatre’s long-time wardrobe mistress, who has more to her than meets the eye; and Sir Bernard, the sharp-eyed pathologist whose ‘Vulture’ nickname belies a kind heart.
The novel isn’t without its problems. Some of the background would have benefitted from more detailed research; and by the end I felt that Allen had been a little over-ambitious, and could have saved some of the characters’ past history for later in what seems set to become a series.
But it’s well written, and has plenty going for it. It’s only her second novel, and experience will smooth away the rough edges.
Taken overall, Jack in the Box is a workmanlike police procedural which doesn’t shy away from the more unsavoury face of crime.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick
Hania Allen was born in Liverpool of Polish refugees. She always wanted to go into space and came a fair way (but not far enough) in the Project Juno competition to find Britain’s first astronaut. Her career in education culminated in information management at the University of St Andrews, a post she left to write full-time. When not writing, she plays the piano with her musically gifted godchildren, making up for in enthusiasm what she lacks in talent. Hania has lived in Scotland longer than anywhere else and loves the country and its people, despite the nine months of rain and three months of bad weather. She currently resides in a fishing village in Fife. Jack in the Box is her first published crime novel.
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.
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