Cole, Julian. The Amateur Historian.

NY: St. Martin, 2007.

Ten years ago, as a young Police Constable in York, Rick Rounder failed to prevent a man he had once known at school from murdering his own young daughter and then killing himself. Rick takes it badly, quits the force, and leaves England. Now he’s back, with a gorgeous black Australian-American girlfriend in tow, and attempts to set himself up as a private detective. And his first case, in which he proves himself to be not much of a detective at all, goes completely sideways.

His older brother, Sam, now a Chief Inspector on the York police force, and with a considerable amount of old psychological baggage, has his own case to solve in a hurry: An eight-year-old girl from a well-to-do family has been kidnapped. Meanwhile, back in 1901 (yes), nine-year-old Esme Percy is trying to survive in nearly-extreme poverty despite her drunken, violent father, who sees her youth as a way to make some money. (Interesting that the author should give this impoverished family the same surname as the “Princes of the North.”) The story jumps back and forth between the two girls — with side-trips into that case in Rick’s own past — and rather suddenly, at almost exactly the halfway point of the book, both the principal Bad Guys are dead. The kidnapper (the “amateur historian” of the title) confesses, just before he dies, that he has hidden the kidnapped girl away but doesn’t say where. But the clues to her location will be found in the brief life of Esme Percy, which he apparently had researched. Coincidentally, the client Rick was working for has turned out to be involved in his old case (he isn’t the only one, either). I know York isn’t that large a city, but the multiple connections among all the people in two (or three) otherwise unconnected cases seem most unlikely. Also, Cole — a journalist turned novice novelist — throws in way too many heavy-handed foreshadowings, of the “Little did he know” variety. An author also ought not to express the thoughts of his characters, especially those of a century before, as his own, in Third Person Omniscient. Nor does Cole really have solid control of his narrative, as shown by the fact that he several times introduces important new plot elements very late in the story. The historical research process, which the book’s cover copy goes on and on about, and which I expected to be a major factor in the investigation, actually comprises only a couple of not very exciting (or interesting) pages. The cover says this is “A Thriller,” but that’s debatable. And most of the characters have a decidedly soap-opera flavor. (And are all residents of York really such rude bastards to everyone else, all of the time?) On the other hand, the city of York itself (which I strongly suspect is the author’s hometown) is also a major character in the story and is quite well handled. I’ll be generous and say I hope Cole does better with his second novel.


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