Ten years since its first publication, the first book in Zoë Sharp’s series about Charlie (Charlotte) Fox reads as freshly as if it were written this year. Charlie is a young woman who lives alone in part of an old gym in Lancaster – she has three showers but no bath – in the north-west of England. She makes a living by teaching women’s self-defence classes, and seems a pretty tough character with her leathers, motorbike and punchbag hanging in the corner of her room.
The plot proper begins when Charlie visits an old haunt, a nightclub that has been refurbished and renamed as the New Adelphi. Charlie used a room at the old club for one of her classes, but as her friend Gary, the barman, tells her, the new management does not like the image of female self-defence and so Charlie has to seek another venue. Slightly embarrassed, Gary gives Charlie some complimentary tickets to the new club: when Charlie’s motorbiking friend Clare realises there is karaoke in the offing, she can’t keep away. The two women head off for an evening out which turns out to be far more action-packed, and tragic, than they’d anticipated.
The novel cracks on at a fair old pace, as Charlie becomes embroiled in helping the new owner, Marc, with his flawed security arrangements. She also helps Terry, another friend who owns a mobile video van. Terry has accepted a laptop computer in part-exchange for some rental money he is owed, but it is password-protected. Charlie, who is very well-connected in the friends department, asks another devoted pal to help her crack the password, to puzzling effect. In another subplot, the owners of a women’s refuge where Charlie teaches one of her classes seek her help to deal with a man who is hanging round the grounds after dark and scaring the residents.
While the multilayered plot unfolds, parts of Charlie’s back story are revealed: she’s been in the army but has been forced out for reasons that later become apparent. The skills which she’s learnt are highly useful in this book, though, as she is threatened, discovers a murder, and is attacked. Are all these events connected, or are they due to different perpetrators? Charlie has her suspicions, which in the absence of any realistic support from the police, she follows through via more threats, another murder, and more attacks to a violent climax or two in the New Adelphi nightclub, where the layers of plot become unpeeled in various dangerous ways.
I enjoyed Killer Instinct mainly for the character of the independent Charlie, who is very well drawn with just the right balance of toughness yet vulnerability based on her past in the army and, further back, in her childhood with the parents from hell. She is cut from the same cloth as V. I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone, yet her history is more vivid and involving. The depiction of her daily life in Lancaster is also well told, with a great sense of atmosphere. The plot, which starts out well, becomes rather unbelievable in the end as virtually everyone in the book seems to be central to it in one way or another. And some of the details seem wrong – for example is there really a computer programme that could crack a seven-character password in a few minutes? Despite the quibbles, I am sure I shall be reading more of this energetic and engaging series. However, I could have done without having the comparison with Lee Child rammed down my throat, in a blurb, a foreword, an afterword and an acknowledgement. As a reader, I prefer to make up my own mind and not be forced into making comparisons.
I downloaded the Kindle version of this book in a promotion (free of charge).
The author’s website – about Charlie Fox and the series in reading order. (Includes many approving excerpts from reviews, yet more Lee Child comparisons and even some look-alike Lee Child book jacket designs!)