One humid summer night in Gibraltar, lawyer Spike Sanguinetti arrives home to find an old friend, Solomon Hassan, waiting on his doorstep. Solomon is on the run, accused of a brutal murder in Tangiers. He has managed to skip across the Straits but the Moroccan authorities want him back. Spike travels to Tangiers to try to delay Solomon’s extradition, and there meets a beautiful Bedouin girl. Zahra is investigating the disappearance of her father, a trail which leads mysteriously back to Solomon. Questioning how well he really knows his friend, Spike finds himself drawn into a dangerous game of secrets, corruption and murderous lies.
I think the first thing that needs to be said is big respect to Mogford to managing to make a tax lawyer slick, sexy and dangerous- no mean feat and one he accomplishes with aplomb! Spike Sanguinetti is a truly compelling character from the outset with a terrier-like determination that leads him into dangerous territory defending his long time friend Solomon Hassan, who is facing a charge of murder. Despite his initial unwillingness to embroil himself in his friend’s trouble, but soon proves himself a stalwart defender as Hassan as a Jew faces trial in the religious cauldron of Tangiers, that would not ensure him a fair trial. As the action moves from Sanguetti’s home of Gibraltar to the sinister and dangerous environs of North Africa, an exploitative corporation, Dunetech, bent on raping the natural resources of a native desert region, proves itself a formidable foe to Sanguinetti’s investigation. As the layers of this corporation’s deceit is revealed, Sanguinetti must draw on his natural wiles and assured sense of morality, that reveals some uncomfortable truths in the faith of his friendship with Hassan. I could not help drawing comparisons with Michael Dibden’s creation Aurelio Zen in terms of Sanguinetti’s inherent charm and moral fibre, but Sanguinetti’s closest personal relationships with his ailing father and the mysterious Bedouin woman, Zahra added different layers to his character, showing his difficulties at the more emotionally complex aspects of the human experience. An interesting and multi-faceted character that carried the central thrust of the book with ease, and more importantly with a sense of believability.
Mogford’s writing is superb and what struck me most was the wonderfully compressed descriptions of people that spoke volumes about the person without overblown description. He describes a taxi driver as a ‘small bug eyed man with pictures of small bug-eyed children gummed to his glove department.’ A projectionist is described as having ears ‘that broke the sheen of his hair like two dolphins breaching’ and my particular favourite, a policeman in Tangier is described as having ‘a face, long and grey, like a lolly sucked dry of flavour’. Perfect little snapshots of a person that fire the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. The story is also imbued with a natural wit from the quotations of a hotel receptionist who seems to neither eat nor sleep- ‘Life without friends is like couscous without salt’ and the verbal sparring of Sanguinetti and his stubborn father. What Mogford holds back from his description of his protagonists, he then lavishes upon his description of location and history, but controlling this so it does not overpower the reader. Using two locations, that to me certainly were entirely unfamiliar, Mogford paints a picture of Gibraltar and Morocco, that not only brings both locations visually alive, but also gives the reader a sense of the troubled and complex multi-racial histories of both countries, and the issues that loom large in their current state from identity and migration to the exploitation of the indigenous populations. Weighty issues are seamlessly melded in to what is both a compelling thriller, infused with wit, and yet also a controlled depiction of the greed and excesses of mankind. A highly impressive debut.
A domestic dispute has escalated into a bloodbath. When his uncle and aunt are found dead, Spike Sanguinetti must cross the Mediterranean to Malta for their funerals, leaving the courtroom behind. But the more he learns about their violent deaths, the more he is troubled by one thing: what could have prompted a mild-mannered art historian to stab his wife before turning the knife upon himself? Reunited with his ex-girlfriend, Zahra, Spike embarks on a trail that leads from the island’s squalid immigrant camps to the ornate palazzos of the legendary Knights of St John. In Malta, it seems, brutality, greed and danger lie nearer to the surface than might first appear.
In the second outing for the debonair but troubled lawyer, Spike Sanguinetti, I picked up on a palpable change of tone and feel to this book. From the brutal opening of the murder of Sanguinetti’s aunt and uncle in Malta, necessitating Sanguinetti and his ailing father to travel and deal with the deceased’s personal affairs, this novel was altogether darker and more circumspect in terms of the investigation, the character of Sanguinetti himself and the overall feel of the book. The more light-hearted aspects of its predecessor Shadow of the Rock were largely absent and there was a significantly less incorporation of wit and humerous interplay between the characters, perhaps reflecting that the events were much more close to Sanguinetti personally than those of the previous book. Having had his relatives murdered by person or persons unknown, the intensity of his father’s illness becoming more evident (and maybe the chance of Sanguinetti falling prey to this hereditary disease himself) and the reappearance of Zahra, forging a new life for herself away from Sanguinetti, the emotional toll on our erstwhile hero is much more in evidence. This perhaps suppresses the more jocular aspects of Mogford’s writing, but in truth, I rather enjoyed the apparent difference in style between the books, and thought this darker tone heightened the sinister and quite brutal path that the story took. As the story plays out, and the facts behind his relatives’ murders come to light, there is also an insidious additional storyline on the exploitation of female migrants that puts Zahra into huge danger, following her work at an immigrant’s camp. A bold but necessary depiction of the plight of women seeking a better life for themselves, but so at risk by those who seem to be aiding their escape. I thought this was both a powerful and well-realised strand of the story, that made for uncomfortable reading, but was good to expose in this context.
As with Shadow of the Rock, Mogford’s sense of location and atmosphere is without doubt another compelling facet to the cut and thrust of the central narrative. By shifting the action to Malta, as he had done using Gibraltar and Morocco in the first, Mogford has centred on a country with a multi-layered history both in terms of religion and demography, fuelling the book with additional points of interest for the reading, but not resorting to a travel guide commentary of the locations and historical anomalies of this fascinating location. Malta has a rich and varied history that Mogford unveils piece by piece as Sanguinetti traverses this island nation in pursuit of the guilty and each location is vividly brought to life from the comfortable neighbourhood of his family dwelling, to the claustrophobic migrant camp and to the less than salubrious Marsa where the seamier side of Maltese life resides.
Building on the strength of his excellent debut Shadow of the Rock, Mogford has produced a subtly different but equally enthralling follow-up, with an intriguing ending- one that I guarantee like me, will have you eagerly awaiting the next instalment…
Thomas Mogford has worked as a journalist for Time Out and as a translator for the European Parliament and the UEFA Champions League. While studying to be a lawyer, he looked into practising abroad. Instead, he decided to write a series of thrillers set in the Mediterranean region. Shadow of the Rock introduces Spike Sanguinetti, a lawyer from Gibraltar who is willing to risk everything to protect his client. The sequel, Sign of the Cross, came out in April 2013, and the third book in the series will be published in April 2014 : www.thomasmogford.com follow on Twitter @ThomasMogford
Thomas Mogford Talks To Crime Time: http://www.crimetime.co.uk
(I bought my copy of Shadow of the Rock and received an ARC of Sign of the Cross from Bloomsbury)