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Nightingale, John - 'The Sky Blue Parcel'
Paperback: 304 pages (Oct. 2006) Publisher: Minster Press ISBN: 189949927X

Jane Charles (nee Quinn) works for the Treasury Department for the British civil service. A reputable businessman, David Mandell, has drowned while swimming in his basement pool, and £250 million has gone missing. Jane is investigating this disappearance as a routine matter, but things become urgent when her previous boss, Kenneth Ormond the Home Secretary, secretly contacts her and asks her to dig out the truth as soon as possible. It turns out that Ormond has invested in Mandell's company and stands to go bankrupt if the missing money doesn't turn up.

There is a tragedy in Jane's past from which she's not fully recovered. She has to deal with office politics involving various government departments, her second in command and a bright young new recruit, Ian Hart, whom Jane hopes will unravel the financial tangle.

Jane's mother lives in sheltered housing and seems a bit batty - or is she? Then there is Robert, Jane's boyfriend, about whom she is ambivalent. Richard, Jane's charming brother, believes that Robert is actually an MI5 agent, though Jane finds this hard to credit. She also has two female friends: Sally, a bit of a Sloane who is always trying to get Jane to go out and socialise; and Diana, who is having a long-term affair with an MP and, confusingly, actually is an MI5 agent. Added to the mix are Christopher Bellmore, the sinister second-in-command of Mandell; the mysterious Paula Black, Mandell's secretary (or was she a more personal friend?); and charismatic but slightly dodgy Mark, film investor son of the dead man. There's an old house in Suffolk complete with retainers, an ex-father-in-law in Ireland, and even more.

As Jane's investigation progresses, she realises she is being followed by a mysterious man whose boots leave a star-shaped pattern in the snow. Despite the fact that Mark is demonstrably not truthful, Jane embarks on a relationship with him, then inexplicably (to me) hides all kinds of vital information from the admittedly rather unpleasant policeman investigating the death and the missing money.

It turns out that Mandell senior had been murdered, and when Jane and Ian begin to get close to the money trail, things get ugly. Eventually, Jane either works out what is going on or stumbles across solutions, leading to the obligatory "woman in peril" climax.

The book is packed with incident, perhaps sometimes at the expense of tension. There are also too many characters making fleeting appearances and then fading out. There are lots of pieces of information the reader receives only indirectly, as hints, for example the relevance of the titular sky-blue parcel: this eventually becomes a bit irritating. The civil service sections are authentic and left me wanting to know more about the workings of a Treasury investigation. But some of the other themes are not so involving.

The book is self-published and is in a nice, readable format with lovely white pages. But I do wonder how much editing was done. The book is bursting with ideas, which a thorough edit could have turned into a really pacy, exciting thriller.

THE SKY BLUE PARCEL is a promising debut, and I'm glad Jane is to have another outing (next time, an attempted coup d’etat is involved), but I do hope that the second in the series will have fewer elements that are more developed, fewer characters, and fewer words.

Maxine Clarke, England
May 2007

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last updated 27/05/2007 12:15