Written by Thomas Mogford — The Rock of Gibraltar, a British territory and gateway to the Mediterranean, is an intriguing starting point for a series that feels both foreign and familiar. There’s a siege mentality to this small but significant promontory. ‘No Enemy Shall Expel Us’ is Gibraltar’s motto, and its UK sovereignty remains contentious with neighbouring Spain, which clamped down on border controls this year. This week there was another diplomatic incident over a Spanish state vessel’s presence 250 metres from Gibraltar Harbour.
Spike Sanguinetti is Mogford’s unlikely hero. He’s a tax lawyer with more pride in the Rock’s naval history than in his job helping wealthy clients duck their taxes. So he doesn’t need much persuading to accept a rare criminal case. An old school friend, Solomon Hassan, turns up on his doorstep having skipped Tangiers across the Gibraltar Straits after becoming the main suspect in the brutal murder of a young Spanish woman. Solomon is terrified at the prospect of being sent to prison in Morocco, but Spike is convinced the man is innocent.
Like the Rock he calls home, there’s a solidity and bloody-mindedness to Spike, who’s tougher than the average tax lawyer. On his travels, he stands up to Spaniards who treat him as an invader and takes on an Old Etonian military type who disparages Spike as a ‘little Gibbo’. As he explains, “People always expect you to run. So I do the opposite.” Spike characterises the defiance of Gibraltar over the centuries.
However, once Mogford’s described the Barbary macaque monkeys that draw in the tourists, the Moorish Castle and a typically British pub, he effectively gives up on the Rock within a few pages. Gibraltar, we are told, is the size of Hyde Park in London and it’s a place where everyone drinks out of sheer boredom. Mogford will no doubt set future novels on Gibraltar but for his debut he sensibly sidesteps such constraints.
Instead, Spike spends most of the book in Tangiers, where he investigates the death of Esperanza Castillo, the tattooed, teenage stepdaughter of Solomon’s boss at solar energy firm Dunetech. When Spike calls at the company, he discovers a slick operation run by co-founder Nadeer Ziyad, whose English public school education clearly charms the clients. Seeking proof of Solomon’s innocence, Spike quizzes a sleazy barman and dancer at the strip joint on the beach near where Esperanza’s body was found. Eventually he encounters a mysterious Bedouin woman, Zahara, and heads to her desert homeland in an attempt to uncover the truth behind the murder, which the local police are either too corrupt or incompetent to investigate.
Mogford’s rendering of the squalor and seediness of Tangiers is an impressive literary feat. He melds fast-moving action sequences with a mood of menace in an unwelcoming land that compares with the great Eric Ambler. Many of the chapters are terse and lean, but sometimes he’ll dunk you into the murky Moroccan underworld for a spell, such as Spike’s foolhardy foray into the lawless Chinatown district where he’s pursued by an unknown enemy.
From the opening scenes in Gibraltar, Mogford’s style is highly descriptive, rather like Peter May’s Lewis trilogy which is set on a Scottish island much further north. Yet there’s a layer of mystery to Spike that draws you into his story, particularly his relationship with Gibraltan cop Jessica. Mogford does reveal his hero’s first name is actually Somerset, after Somerset Maugham, whose many works included the Ashenden espionage stories. Spike’s no spy, yet over the course of a slow-burning narrative that explodes into violence, he demonstrates ingenuity of which James Bond might be proud.
Mogford’s a major new talent and he’s arrived with a stylish, absorbing thriller in which the landscape is as memorable as the characters. The sequel, Sign of the Cross, which is out now, takes Spike on family business to Malta. If you read this remarkable debut, you’ll almost certainly want to accompany this single-minded lawyer on all his perilous investigations.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars