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Monroe, Aly - 'Black Bear'
Hardback: 480 pages (May 2013) Publisher: John Murray ISBN: 1848544863

BLACK BEAR by Aly Monroe is the fourth book in her award-winning series about economist and British agent Peter Cotton. Cotton has been sent by British Intelligence to New York to report on the establishment of the United Nations Organization. He wakes up in the Ogden Clinic, a facility for war veterans. He is suffering from short-term memory loss and cannot remember what has happened to him. Psychiatrist Dr Sanford informs him that he was found badly bruised slumped in a doorway having been apparently injected with scopolamine, sodium amytal, and mescaline, an experience that has left him with distorted vision, vertigo and an inability to tell what is real and what might be hallucinations. His sister Joan visits Cotton while his symptoms are being closely monitored, and members of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the intelligence community come to interview him.

Cotton wonders who did this to him? What did they do? Why did they do it? And above all why did they let him live?

When Cotton's health improves enough to leave the clinic, he goes to recuperate at a cottage owned by his brother-in-law Todd's cousin Eleanor Ramsden, in Narrangansett, Rhode Island.

This is not an action packed Jason Bourne type spy thriller. This story is a tense atmospheric narrative where subtle innuendo, smart conversation, superb character profiles and relationships are more important than the action. Aly Monroe has been recommended for readers of John le Carre, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, but I would say she writes with such style and cleverness that her sub-plots such as Cotton's Narragansett matchmaking between Sally Ingram, a war widow, and Joe Samms, a wounded war veteran, and her accounts of Ed Lowell's party in Newport are almost Austen like. This novel is an intelligent detailed account of Cotton's recovery during his time in New York, summer in Rhode Island, and back to New York.

The book abounds with intriguing characters, and the reader is given vivid vignettes about them, including Maria de los Angeles Vergera Fratelli, an Argentinean beauty who is treated like an available commodity.

She had a very winning smile. "Quiero mas", she said. Cotton remembered this was the Spanish translation of Oliver Twist's famous request for more...
...[she] had gone but she left a note. It read: You are a good man and an absolutely marvellous lover. But I have to say it – forget me.
She had removed all the money from his wallet except enough for a taxi fare.

And there are numerous evocative asides that place the reader firmly in the correct timespan, such as the comment about former Ambassador Joe Kennedy's second son who aspires to the presidency but will never make it because he is a Catholic.

Or the article in Time magazine about:

Indian independence - no mention of Pakistan - that mentioned some deaths.
But there was no attack on the British. Instead the article claimed that virtually the entire British commercial community was staying, since business people preferred having dozens of servants and abundant food to the deepening drabness of post-war Britain.

The novel contains a kaleidoscope of characters that range from decent war veteran Joe Samms, to the obnoxious Ed Lowell, and some like the slinky Minty Auchinloss, who becomes Cotton's "date" at a Newport party, are a bit difficult to categorize. There is discussion of Anglo-American relations, the controversial recruitment of ex–Nazi scientists, and the medical experiments conducted on Negroes in the South, and in Latin America by agents of the Federal government. And how appalling standards of behaviour now seem quite reasonable compared with the acts of the Nazis. While in the background is the fear of the Soviets that was so real at that time and for years to come.

Herbert groaned. "As a sentimental man said, "One death is a tragedy, a thousand deaths are a statistic."
Cotton raised his eyebrows. "Who was that?"

This is a well-researched book that describes an America that was eating steak, smoked salmon and lobster while rationed Britain was still enduring bloater paste and spam. It is a novel that moves at a methodical pace but skilfully draws the reader into the story, and once again proves that interesting characters are more important than action in producing good novels.

BLACK BEAR, and there are two of them in the story, is a fine addition to a series which has got me hooked.

He came to the conclusion that the whole operation [British Intelligence] was damagingly class-ridden.
"He's right about that," said Cotton.
He has quite a good phrase. "Their social prejudices make them blinder than the moles that they are meant to be hunting."

Norman Price, England
May 2013

Norman blogs at
Crime Scraps.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 12/05/2013 09:19