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Popular alike with more customary readership and those about whom she writes - police, criminals, prison guards - Martina Cole has built a faithful following. It has been said that her books are, appropriately, the most stolen in the library system. If one senses a lack of condemnation of every criminal in the author's books, perhaps that is because is real life this girl who grew up in a rough neighbourhood amongst criminals, maintains her ties to her childhood friends. This is an unlooked for benefit to her readers who must sense the ring of authenticity in Cole's situations and characters. Cole, thankfully, unlike certain other authors, writes about what she knows. It is fortunate, indeed, for crime fiction that the then nurse listened to an elderly lady who observed to Cole that it was the things one doesn't do that one regrets in old age. This prompted the nurse to purchase an electric typewriter and polish a manuscript she had written many years previously. Her choice of an agent was equally serendipitous. She looked at a list of agents, liked the name of one and left a message for someone she thought was a woman . The agent was a man, one who saw her potential and obtained a lucrative deal for the neophyte author with Headline, the publisher with whom she has been associated ever since 1992.
This author's bibliography includes Dangerous Lady, The Ladykiller , Goodnight Lady The Jump ,Two Women, Broken , Faceless, Maura's Game and now The Know.
Martina Cole has been quoted as saying that her books begin happily and end the same way - perhaps, then The Know is an exception as it begins with police notifying a mother that they have found the dead body of her young child and ends with the funeral of the child. The tragedy of the ending, however, is ameliorated but to say how would be to spoil the suspense of what occurs between the beginning and the end.
Joanie Brewer, the protagonist, is a prostitute. Regardless of her profession, she has three children whom she adores. The children are of differing colours - one was sired by a black man, another by a Turk and the third by a white Englishman - but all are dear to her although the youngest, an eleven year-old girl, is probably the dearest of all. Joanie has attempted to bring up her trio with all the advantages she never knew when she was a child. Her own mother was a drunken whore but even though Joanie is a pavement prostitute, she neither drinks to excess nor takes drugs. She is popular in her neighbourhood and a byword for devoted motherhood to all her friends.
Joanie's youngest, Kira, suffers learning difficulties and appears, to others, to be backward. Kira's best friend, Bethany, is sharper , more streetwise - certainly more sophisticated -and tends to lead Kira into dangerous behaviour such as drinking and wagging school. Despite this, Kira becomes friends with Tommy Thompson, an excessively fat and repellent looking man who loves to play with Barbie dolls, Kira's favourite. Despite her initial doubts, Joanie hires Tommy as a baby-sitter.
Joanie's eldest child, eighteen year-old Jon Jon, has begun to make a name for himself as a 'hard' man. Paulie Martin, a local crime figure and Joanie's pimp, asks Jon Jon to work for him. Initially, despising the man who sells Joanie's body, Jon Jon declines but eventually relents although he imposes certain conditions including Joanie's promotion to working in one of Paulie's massage parlours, a far safer employment than that which she previously enjoyed.
Just when Joanie is about to embark on her new job Kira disappears. Joanie, Jon Jon and most of the neighbourhood, join in a search for the child. Ugly suspicions fall on various people. Both Joanie and Jon Jon attempt to pursue their own search, not trusting the police in whom they have no faith at all. Their search leads them through the dregs of the criminal society as they attempt to track down 'nonces' or paedophiles. Jon Jon uncovers a hidden network within the gangs of criminals in an attempt to avenge the disappearance of his little sister.
Cole paints an horrifying picture of child prostitution as well as the lives of adult prostitutes, the bottom of the pile, so to speak. She, as a single mother, understands the plight of such women and paints a wonderfully empathetic picture of those who, unlike others who do not care for or about their children, sacrifice their own bodies in order that their children should not be forced to do the same. Her characters, especially her women protagonists, are completely believable and her narratives are both engrossing and terrifying.
This author has, in the time I have been reading her work, become one of my favourites.
Reviewed by Denise Wels Pickles, November 2003
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