The House on the Hill

houseonthehill200Written by Kevin Sampson ­– We first met DCI Billy McCartney in 2013, in The Killing Pool, which I picked as my top book of that year here on CFL. Now he’s back in a story that straddles a gap of almost a quarter of a century.

The action begins in June 1990, where a young Arab waits for a contact at a marina in Ibiza. He turns to greet his visitor and it’s the last thing he ever does. In a split-second the Prince is lying dead in a pool of his own blood.

Skip back a week and Billy McCartney is on leave when he receives a call from his boss. Drugs kingpin John-John Hamilton has been spotted in Ibiza, where two young people have died thanks to taking decidedly dodgy Ecstasy tablets – something Hamilton is known to supply in bulk. And to top it all, he’s been spotted consorting with a young man of Arabic appearance who calls himself the Prince and is suspected of being involved in plotting terrorism on a grand scale.

Can McCartney go out there and investigate? Is the Pope Catholic? He is paired up with DS Camilla (known as Millie) Baker and the plan is that they will to go undercover to catch Hamilton in his summer playground. But as we lovers of crime fiction know, such best-laid plans are made to go awry – as this one does, with disastrous consequences for both McCartney and Millie.

Skip forward to the present, and McCartney is still recovering from what happened in Ibiza, so when a chance arises to put things right he doesn’t hesitate. It is winter when a young runaway knocks on Billy’s door, and what she tells him sends his world into topspin. He needs to get to Morocco and somehow get inside a hilltop compound known as the Red Fort. It’s a place that’s impossible to breach and is home to the El Glaoui family, top producers of the finest cannabis from the Rif.

This a fast-paced thriller with more than its fair share of stop-and-face-palm moments when, belatedly, realisation dawns. The unrelenting action is almost cinematic at times, with touches of spaghetti western and 007 thrown into the mix, plus a story strand lifted straight from fairytale. There are even characters described as looking like Robert de Niro and a young Omar Sharif.

After The Killing Pool, I somehow expected another gritty, dark, urban-based story but The House on The Hill takes big strides away from that atmosphere. Here the settings are richly rendered, from the hedonism of 1990s Ibiza to the harsh beauty of the mountainous Rif region in Morocco, although the story played out against the backdrops is no less violent and disturbing.

Billy McCartney is fleshed out as something of a cartoonish hero. Last time we met he was a single-minded Liverpool cop on a mission, in The House on the Hill he’s been transformed into a veritable man of action. Suddenly, this is a character who has more in common with James Bond and Jack Reacher… He rides! He leaps! He dives! He rescues maidens in distress! I have to admit to feeling a little uncomfortable with this new side to the central character. The sense that he was having to prove himself at every edge and turn was not so evident in book one.

It was always going to be tough to match the jaw-dropping finale of The Killing Pool and in the end Kevin Sampson plumps for an ending that is less dramatic, though strangely moving. I’ve no idea where he is planning to take Billy McCartney next, but I will look in with interest.

The House on the Hill goes on sale 7 August.

Jonathan Cape
Print/Kindle/iBook
£8.49

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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