Friday, May 4, 2018


THE POISONED ROCK by Robert Daws (Urbane Publications, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In London, the British Government has declassified a large number of top secret files regarding British Military Intelligence operations during World War II. 

One file, concerning espionage operations on Gibraltar, has been smuggled out of the UK to Spain. It contains information that will draw Sullivan and Broderick into the dark and treacherous world of wartime Gibraltar—a place where saboteurs and espionage plots abounded, and where double and triple agents from Britain, Germany and Spain were at war in a treacherous and deadly game of undercover operations. It is only a matter of time before past and present collide and a dangerous battle begins to conceal the truth about the Rock's poisonous wartime history. 

Detectives Sullivan and Broderick become caught in a tangled web of intrigue and murder that will once again test their skills and working relationship to the very limit. 

Robert Daws has been telling stories as an actor on stage and screen for decades, and with this second installment in his Sullivan and Broderick series he shows he's got a good nose for the page as well.

THE POISONED ROCK offers a spiderweb of a plot set against a vividly evoked Mediterranean setting, and secret machinations that span several decades. Gibraltar is a British shard jutting into the Mediterranean, looking across the sea to Morocco while geographically attached to Spain. It has a much fought-over history, and an interesting mix of a populace. Daws does a great job capturing that blend of history, geography, and sociology and texturing it into his mystery tale rather smoothly.

In modern Gibraltar, a film is being made about the Queen of Diamonds, a controversial war-time British spy. But the shoot isn't going entirely smoothly. Then the murders start.

Detective Tamara Sullivan is a relative newcomer to 'the Rock', having been unceremoniously exiled from her previously promising career with the London Metropolitan Police. She was meant to be on a three-month 'secondment', but her future's unclear. Chief Inspector Gus Broderick of the Royal Gibraltar Police Force is an old-school copper who's grown to trust Sullivan in a short time. Together they have to investigate just what is going on, and whether the old stories behind the Queen of Diamonds legend, true or false, are playing a part in the current-day mayhem. Does the motive for the violence lie in the past, or is that just a smokescreen for something more modern and personal?

There's an awful lot to like about Robert Daws' storytelling. He handles a complex plot with many strands very well, never allowing it to get away from him or become overwhelming. He does a great job bringing war-time intrigue and post-war European spycraft to vivid life, and gives a real sense of the 'feel' of different times in history, past and present.

I've never been to Gibraltar, and knew very little about it, but felt I had a strong sense of the place (or a clear impression, at least) after reading this. Daws builds a very realistic and authentic-feeling world of the British peninsula and southern Spain; buildings, cafes, plazas, alleyways. He captures the hustle and bustle of a sunny place that can be flooded by tourists, and the contrasts between those who come and go and the locals who live and work there all year 'round.

All of this is threaded throughout a fascinating plotline that blends murder mystery with spy story. THE POISONED ROCK was a remarkably fast read that didn't feel breezy or underdone. There was some texture and richness as the pages whirred. Overall, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for newspapers and magazines in several countries. In recent years he has interviewed 200 crime writers, discussed the genre onstage at books festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, and has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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