Billed as a “Joe Pike” novel, The First Rule is a ripping yarn that I wasn’t very sure about at first but once the introductory phase was over and the main plot kicked in, I enjoyed so much I missed my tube stop and hence my train home from work.
The novel opens unpromisingly when a suburban family is gunned down by a gang. This massacre is not random. The father, Frank Meyer, was a mercenary (or at least, a shadowy military person who is a staple of crime fiction) who had served in a unit with Joe Pike and other pals some years ago doing brave but patriotic deeds in distant, dangerous lands: again, as one does in a certain type of novel. Frank had then met Cindy, who had sensibly told him she would only marry him if he quit the fighting life. Frank complied and got a regular job; the couple were married, had two sons and embraced the LA suburban lifestyle. Then, disaster struck.
Joe Pike usually features as an enigmatic sidekick of Elvis Cole, a private investigator and the main character in an excellent series by this author. He’s been awarded a couple of novels in which he is the main character, however, and The First Rule is one of these. Although Cole helps out Pike quite a bit as the game plays out, this novel is emphatically Pike’s show. As soon as he finds out about Frank’s death, he vows vengeance and rounds up his previous military associates, who are the usual clichéd, damaged addicts who nevertheless exist to maintain the honour of the group and to avenge any one of them who is in trouble or worse.
Joe Pike is a curate’s egg of a character. In one respect he is very boring – an invincible superman, supreme fighter, tight-lipped hero, never takes his sunglasses off, etc. The author often seems too much in love with him for the good of the novels in which he features. When Pike is a sidekick of Cole, this is OK. But when he has to carry a whole book on his own, it can be problematic. Yet in another respect, Pike holds the reader’s interest, when his vulnerabilities, history and more human side are allowed to show through.
Returning to The First Rule, as soon as we get all the Pike-worship and the initial carnage out of the way and the book shifts to the plot – how Pike finds out who killed his friend and why – the momentum is revved up and the novel really takes off. I won’t provide any hints here that might spoil your experience, but suffice it to say there is plenty of detection, surprise, misdirection, strategy and tension as Pike plays off good guys against other good guys (and girls), bad guys against bad guys (and girls), and keeps his own counsel about what he is really up to.
Characterisation is not a strong point in this book, though the main characters of Pike and Cole are straight arrows who are pleasant to identify with, and who deliver a solid chunk of action and mutual support, as well as some amusing yet touching anti-macho actions. The twists and turns of the plot, both in terms of detection and, later, as thriller, work very well. I highly recommend this novel, although it would not be the best introduction to the characters of Cole and Pike, who are so well established previously that here their personalities are mere sketches.
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Round up of reviews and quotes from reviews at the author's website.