(2011) Jon Steele, Bantam Press, £12.99, pbk, 554pp, ISBN 978-0-593-06751-2
Here we go again with the hype: 'Imagine the Bourne Identity rewritten by Neil Gaiman and it would be nothing like this novel'. Having only encountered Jason Bourne through the films rather than the books by Robert Ludlum I am not sure whether the comparison is a good or bad thing, but I would certainly say that The Watchers is far from an action-packed, page turning novel, although we do have a character that is missing his memory, fragments of which return through the novel giving him some insight and abilities at crucial times. Certainly compared to the Bourne films, the pace is slow, even if the story is intriguing, but it would be fair to say that it takes a while to really ignite and grip the reader, and some readers patience might not last that long. What it does have in its favour is its setting – Lausanne in Switzerland, particularly its cathedral and three very different lead characters. First, we have private detective, Jay Harper (which seems a pretty classic private dick name –think of Paul Newman’s rechristened Lew Harper character based on the Lew Archer series of books) who has lost his memory and is being played by those around him (another classic private detective trope), ending up working as a freelance security assistant for the International Olympic Committee who want him to find a missing Russian hockey star. Then there is an American courtesan called Katherine Taylor who was a former Playboy model who has moved to Switzerland as an escort in the 200 Club and is quite ruthless in her outlook about herself and her circumstances who discovers that her life is a sham. Finally there is a young Marc Rochat – probably the most interesting of the three - who is handicapped and works in the cathedral guarding its nine bells and able to see ghosts all around him. He has a special interest in Katherine, believing her to be angel that he has to save. Their stories are separate but gradually begin to intertwine and when they do the plot really begins to take off. But before we encounter the three leads there is a beautifully written prologue set during World War One at the Battle of Vinny Ridge, the events of which do not feature again until later in the book.
While The Watchers is well written, atmospheric, and gripping when it gets going, it does fall between some genre stools, coming over as a mixture of historical, detective, conspiracy and thriller, not to forget the supernatural parts, but it is fair to say that some elements do not seem to be as fleshed out as the others. All in all The Watchers is worth the journey if you can stick with it to the end. However there were a couple of repetitive phrases that cropped up too many times and were a bit jarring which an editing 'spring clean' should have sorted out. But as someone who usually balks at the sight of a weighty tome, the novel was surprisingly easy to read, and who knows, I might come back for more as this is the first of a trilogy: The Watchers will be followed by Angel City and The Way of Sorrows.
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