Lights, Camera, Murder!

Gibraltar, a land of contrast and harmony, is fast establishing itself as one of the favourite playgrounds for Anglophone crime novelists such as John Paxton Sheriff (Death Warmed Up) and Thomas Mogford (Shadow of the Rock, Hollow Mountain), who are contributing to popularise it as a thrilling holiday destination by taking poetic licence in causing an exponential spike in the murder rate of this actually safe British territory.

One of the novelists piling up the fictional body count is actor and screenwriter Robert Daws, known to the British public as the on-screen doctor in The Royal and Poldark. Daws will be back for the Gibraltar Literary Festival to present his novel Killing Rock, the third episode of a series of crime investigations by brilliant (and beautiful) detective Tamara Sullivan who, in Robert’s debut novella The Rock, landed in Gibraltar on a career-stopping three-month secondment (read: punishment) to the Royal Gibraltar Police, after she breached protocol to successfully solve a tough kidnapping case with the Metropolitan Police. Here, the young go-getter hits the ground running when is paired with less young, grumpy but gold-hearted ‘colonial’ hardboiled softie chief inspector Gus Broderick, to solve a sensitive case breaks close to home – the apparent suicide of two young and promising uniformed officers, recently involved in a fatal motorbike incident.

In a talk scheduled for Friday 16th November at 4pm, titled “Mystery, Murder and Ghosts on the Rock”, Robert’s wife, actress Amy Robbins, will read his ghost story Tunnel Vision; an Amazon best-seller in which Tamara is prompted to re-open a Gibraltar cold case by a supernatural occurrence.

Daws concocts the co-protagonist that readers will love to hate: Superintendent Harriet Massetti, top-cop with a penchant for early-bird press conferences, algid and business-like in The Rock, but in the sequel suffering an accident that makes her human, showing her vulnerability beyond the commander and bureaucrat façade, thus scoring popularity points with the readership against cool-as-cucumber Tamara, a fish’n’chips permutation of the beyond-the-pond police procedural drama’s hot brunette heroines – is it just me, or have you noticed how TV female detectives are hardly ever blondes?

In Daws’ books, ‘whodunnit’ literary clichés are shredded, and nobody is what it seems, although the reader cannot help wonder how much of a victim the perpetrator is, and about the personal toll exacted on police officers when torn between upholding the law and being human – the very dilemma that has in the first instance caused Tamara’s loan to the RGP.

Hailed by rave reviews, Robert sharpened his pencil to deliver a full-length spy story spanning seventy years and thousands of miles, where facts and fiction are astutely woven in a tapestry of intrigue and deceit, peppered with Hollywood glitz. If Sullivan’s first closed case on Gibraltar soil was literally a cliffhanger, her second chance to unleash her intuitive and deductive skills is lifting the veil on the tragic burden of a ghastly secret taken (almost) to the grave.

In The Poisoned Rock, we meet a gallery of quirky characters of the local Tinseltown, from dramatist Josh Cornwallis, victim of his own scruple in researching the accuracy of his historical blockbuster Queen of Diamonds, to shifty producer Gabriel Isolde and diva Julia Novacs, who gives us a guided tour of her villa in Marbella, on loan from nonetheless than Antonio Banderas – yes, there’s a bit of nonchalant namedropping in this book! Later, when she flees to Paris after being assaulted, she is greeted at the airport by former first lady Carla Bruni (and why not? All is fair in fantasy and war). Don’t be put off by this overindulged diva: the rest of the troupe is way more credible artistically as it stays put to contribute more or less eccentrically to the investigation that at one point seems to converge on the bed-hopping habits tritely attributed to the showbiz scene, until a wicked twist in the plot threatens to squeeze not just the professional, but also the personal life out of the usually level-headed fatherly figure of Broderick.

Similarly to Thomas Mogford’s A Thousand Cuts, in which WWII espionage bears consequences on Third Millennium Gibraltar, The Poisoned Rock plot unfolds in three different decades: the 40s, the 60s, and present day, seamlessly joined together in the lifetime of an intense character who starts her tragic life in an orphanage and ends it in a nunnery – the epitome of the Machiavellian dilemma about the ethics of the end justifying the means. Her life story is explored with lucid realism peering into the abyss of mental illness and its consequences on oneself and the people one may stumble upon during their frenzied search for justice or revenge, sparked by the desire to keep their parents’ memory untarnished, deservedly or not.

Despite the Yanito flavour being almost absent (no stuffy levanter, no summer hours, no cervecita y calentita, and absolutely no vernacular – only articulate English dialogue with the occasional Andalusian interjection), the story is set in a city that never sleeps, whose topography is a stickler for detail. Enjoy the hectic drive to St. Bernard’s Hospital around the Evacuation roundabout, the insider tour of New Mole House, the bougainvillea-draped walls of Upper Town villas and the steel-and-glass skyscrapers on reclaimed land; remark at the explicit mentions of some of Gibraltar’s landmark pubs, where the author must have enjoyed a pint or two while getting in character, and even a nod to the banner advertising the Beatles memorabilia exhibition that used to stretch across Casemates balcony a few years ago.

The atmosphere is international, with Pakistani and Nigerian doctors at the local hospital, Polish tourists who are not who they seem, Brit expat policemen who won’t shun blackmail to gain leverage on shady Algeciras lawyers, wishy-washy law enforcement across the border and the bonus of the loosely related murder of an Asian transsexual embezzler whom the shrewd reader may deem unnecessary to plot advancement, and dismiss it as just another body to shovel over the pile – as if three in a single day were not enough!

To top it all, a nonagenarian bed-ridden South-African holds the key to MI6, KGB secrets and has one hand in Nazi’s pies… tickled your fancy yet?

With so much on the plate, there’s still room for a sneak peek into Broderick’s family, when we meet his sister Cath and his teenage daughters: a moody gap-year student and the sweet-sixteen daddy’s girl with Down syndrome. The rest of the police force strictly keeps family and professional lives separate, with Tamara focusing on her early-morning fitness regime and on dodging the not-so-smooth pick-up lines of young, handsome and cocky careerist officer Calbot, who turns out to be her competitor in a promotion pivotal to seal Tamara’s bivalent relationship with her workplace.

Will she bid goodbye to the second oldest police force in the world, or will she keep on chasing bad guys under the Mediterranean sunshine? The answer is a killer – a Killing Rock.