Caroline Barber, a civil servant in the UK government’s Department for Education, is working late one night when she finds her boss – the Minister for Schools – dead at his desk, seemingly having killed himself. Caroline refuses to accept this, however, and starts digging, but what she finds buried underneath is something altogether different and far-reaching from what she expected.
That’s the synopsis, but I should say upfront that this isn’t so much a review of The Loyal Servant as it is an unashamed plug. The reason for that is that I happen to have known the author Eva Hudson for several years and even worked with her in the same DfE settings that feature in this mystery/political thriller, and consequently I don’t have the requisite degree of separation to the material to make it possible to deliver a properly dispassionate and objective review without being either overly gushing or pedantically picky. Which is not to say – with full disclosure over and done with – that I can’t in good faith and complete confidence recommend that everyone head off and buy a copy of the e-book, which at the time of writing is on sale at Amazon for 99p/99¢ and free on iTunes to mark the release of Eva’s latest novel, which is a sequel-of-sorts.
Certainly I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Loyal Servant. The locations in and around the London headquarters of the DfE are very nicely evoked as much through a sense of the office procedures and etiquette involved in the world of public service rather than a matter of the nondescript governmental decor in which it invariably plays out. I should add that while I didn’t recognise any characters in the book as being based on people that I myself knew from the same settings, there are some very familiar workplace archetypes that had me nodding my head in recognition.
Eva’s real life experience in this world allows her to build a more intriguing conspiracy behind the surface than most books of this ilk can ever attempt with any conviction, and the way that the Caroline manages to unpick the mystery is correspondingly more interesting and less conventional than usual for the genre, which makes for a great read. The book’s other great strength is the character of Caroline herself, who is given an unusual amount of depth and dimension over the course of the book. It’s an example of how the gender of an author can really make a difference, because Eva brings little details and shadings to Caroline’s everyday experiences and thoughts that simply wouldn’t occur to the vast majority of male authors, and as a result Caroline feels like a genuinely new and fresh creation who opened my eyes to things that happen in modern office and home life that I’d simply been cheerfully oblivious to in the past.
As well as Caroline’s work surroundings, the book also covers her home life that includes her troubled marriage and juggling the demands of her three children each with their own problems. At first this appears like a typical soap opera background of little import, but in fact the plot soon scoops up those threads and makes them an integral element of the ongoing conspiracy narrative. If only all writers were this adept at weaving things together then I might be more partial to reading domestic thrillers – and by domestic, I mean not just books set in a normal family home environment but also novels set on my doorstep in and around London, which normally I find hard to get into.
Perhaps as a result of my partiality for the government office settings and for the character of Caroline, I wasn’t quite so keen when the story started to stray away from the work and home environments that had became increasingly fraught and claustrophobic as the forces of the conspiracy closed in, or on the sections which utilise the alternate point-of-view character of a hard-nosed old-school journalist called Angela Thorne. (It will be interesting to see what Eva does with Angela in The Third Estate where the reporter goes on to become the central character of the book and therefore has room to properly grow into her own.) But these are quibbles and likely an example of my being too picky – other reviewers I’ve seen have regarded Angela as almost stealing the show. The book certainly builds to an effective, gripping and surprisingly action-packed climax, so no one will feel short-changed as the pace picks up and all is revealed.
As you can see, any attempt to lapse into review-mode leaves me second-guessing my underlying intentions and so it’s best that I pull back to the original plan, and just give a good old fashioned plug, which can be best summed up in this way: if you’re at all into mystery novels and like the works of authors such as Sophie Hannah, Nicci French and Mark Billingham then this should be right up your street. And even if you’re not then it’s still absolutely worth a try especially while at its sale price. And even its regular full price is a steal, to be honest – it’s what I bought it for and I was certainly not disappointed!
“The Loyal Servant” is available in e-book format from Amazon and iTunes. It’s the first of three novels in a loosely connected series in which a supporting character from one novel becomes the featured player in another: Caroline’s indomitable mother Jean Henderson takes the lead in the second, “The Senior Moment,” while journalist Angela Thorne takes point for the most recent addition to the series called “The Third Estate.” Originally collected under the umbrella title of ‘Degrees of Separation’, that’s now been changed to the more immediately accessible (and hence doubtlessly more PR- and marketing-friendly!) ‘The Women Sleuths Series.’