More than a handful of dust

This is my review of Shadow of the Rock (A Spike Sanguinetti Mystery) by Thomas Mogford.

When former school friend Solomon Hassan knocks on his door in Gibraltar, tax lawyer Spike Sanguinetti decides to give him the benefit of the doubt over the charge of murdering his employer’s step-daughter in Tangiers. Spike’s attempt to persuade the Moroccan authorities to drop an extradition charge involves travelling to Tangiers and collecting some of the evidence the police should have found.

The spare style conveys more than many tales of twice the length. Details are gradually revealed without any clunky information dumps, although the novel occasionally reminded me of a travel guide or geography book. The author creates a strong sense of place, which reads as if it is based on first-hand knowledge, drawing interesting comparisons between Gibraltar and Morocco, both on the edge of Europe, separated from it by more than distance. Gibraltar is a historical anomaly, an anachronism is many ways, belittled by the Spanish who call its inhabitants “chingongos” – “ a remote tribe of people who are interbred”. In Morocco, the traditional culture is fractured by some of the less savoury aspects of western influence, with capitalist development involving more than a tinge of exploitation, as typified by Solomon’s employer “Dunetech”, “Powering a Greener Future” amongst the desert Bedouin.

So this pacy thriller with serious undertones might seem calculated to please a wide audience. I would have liked it better with fewer formulaic elements: the hook of a prologue describing a context-free murder made more sinister by the assassin’s calmness and the victim’s lack of fear; the frequent scenes of loveless sex and gratuitous violence which are not essential to the plot, but presumably intended to excite or titillate; last but not least, the use of very short chapters, often only a page or two in length, assuming a sound-bite level of concentration. Some scenes fall flat, or are frankly confusing, suggesting a need to edit more for clarity. It is a pity that all chapters do not sustain the excellence of say, Chapter 11 when in less than four pages we are treated to the sharp contrast of Tangiers, Spike’s wry humour, the incongruous presence of Dunetech “gleaming in the sun as if God had just finished buffing it with his own chamois leather” and the firm’s unappealing Head of Corporate Security Toby Riddell. Perhaps this reflects the author’s previous success as a short fiction writer.

Despite my reservations, this is a page-turner, with reasonably developed main characters and some interesting background issues, the denouement is quite sound and does not disappoint, although it would have been more powerful without the final chapter to spell out what the reader has already deduced..

I may read the next in the series, but not for a while.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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