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by Catherine Sampson
Macmillan, August 2004
320 pages
ISBN: 1405040807

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

FALLING OFF AIR is the excellent debut novel written by former BBC television correspondent Catherine Sampson who now lives with her family in Beijing.

Set in Streatham, South London, the book is as much a novel of modern living as a mystery, and thus has a pleasantly distinctive feel. Robin Ballantyne is on maternity leave from the Corporation (which I took to be a fictionalised BBC) living in a rather grotty house with her two twin babies, and thinking about returning to work.

She has had no real contact with their TV director father, Adam Wills, since their birth -- he couldn't commit. Instead she has received help from her mother and sisters who live nearby. This is nothing new for her mother, now an active community lawyer, who brought the girls up on her own following their father's desertion, but she also has to take care of Robin's sister Lorna who is suffering badly from ME. The third sister, Tanya, is a nurse, and has three daughters with her husband Patrick with whom she juggles shifts at work. It's a hectic scene.

One night when a storm is raging, Robin looks out the window and sees a woman falling to her death from the house opposite. She had heard arguing earlier in the evening but isn't sure where it came from, and didn't see the start of the woman's fall. It's not clear whether Paula Carmichael's death was a suicide or not, but her high profile fame as a politician and evangelical charity worker ensure huge media interest.

Initially Robin is just curious about the neighbours she had never met before, but as she becomes chief suspect and another death ensues which seems designed to frame her, she starts investigating herself. It seems Adam Wills and Paula Carmichael had developed a close relationship during the aborted filming of a documentary of the latter's work, and Robin is drawn back into the world of television, quizzing her former colleagues as she tries to make sense of the situation and clear her name.

FALLING OFF AIR is intended as the first book in a series featuring Robin Ballantyne. A large part of the book is spent getting to know all the various characters and seeing how Robin copes when the media spotlight is turned on her, so the pace of the investigation itself is initially very slow, but it picks up with the second death and takes centre stage as the novel concludes.

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of things happening to develop the plot, and my interest was keenly held throughout. I cared about the characters, and the insights into the world of 'The Corporation' and independent production companies was, as you might expect given the author's pedigree, authentic and interesting. Whilst the scene setting might be an indication that this is the first of a series, the writing is tight and accomplished, and this certainly doesn't read like a first book.

I eagerly await number two -- there is a hint that Robin may return to TV to run a series investigating cases where justice may not have been served, which sounds like an interesting premise.

I highly recommend FALLING OFF AIR and suggest you pick up on this new series now.

Reviewed by Bridget Bolton, August 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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