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by John Connor
Orion, January 2005
352 pages
ISBN: 0752857762

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

John Connor's debut novel PHOENIX, featuring maverick Yorkshire cop Karen Sharpe, was a weird 'un. Set during the 1990s, but with no particular landmarks to anchor it to the time, it presented us with a fairly implausible plot, a cast of unlikable characters and a leading woman with a murky past and the charm of a wheel clamper with toothache. THE PLAYROOM is more of the same.

Several months on, Karen is still suffering from the after-effects of the previous book, most visibly in the fact she now has a daughter in tow -- although Mairead thinks Karen is her aunt. And she's also acquired a partner in the shape of Neil, a lawyer. Don't bother your heads about him, though, as Connor doesn't -- he remains firmly one-dimensional to the end. And no, the views of her private life with a small child there don't make Karen any more believable or likeable.

As befits her 'I do what I like, when I like and answer to no one' approach, Karen delves into claims of sex abuse from ten years ago made against a Member of Parliament. Meanwhile, the rest of the West Yorkshire force are trying to track down the daughter of a Bradford judge, who has been kidnapped. DCS John Munro, Karen's sparring partner from PHOENIX, is in charge of the investigation, but rapidly begins to crack under the pressure. Oh yes, and there's another maverick cop in the shape of Pete Bains who has a blotted copybook past. He's no more likeable than the rest, but is at least faintly intriguing.

I don't expect writers to present us with charming characters you'd take home to mum all down the line, but I do expect them to develop the characters and make me care about them. Connor doesn't. At all.

I've been trying to work out why THE PLAYROOM (and PHOENIX before it) didn't work for me and the best I can come up with is that none of it seems to ring true -- and that's not just the characters. Connor is a Crown Prosecution Service lawyer in West Yorkshire, and the issues covered are certainly real life and crime fiction staples. But there's something there that doesn't gel.

The books remind me a little of Lynda LaPlante's work -- and that's not necessarily a compliment, incidentally. There's a strong woman at the centre and a vaguely workmanlike plot, but very little else is fleshed out. It's clearly all waiting for TV scriptwriters and a capable bunch of actors to come along and bring it to life. So I can't say I was too surprised when I read that the BBC has bought the rights to PHOENIX and THE PLAYROOM. It's going to take a radical re-write and some award-winning performances to make me care about Karen and Co.

Connor's not a bad writer and THE PLAYROOM might gel for you, if you don't mind a blood-bath of an ending and totally implausible and unlikely character motives and actions. Oh, and I'd love to know when 'gotten' became everyday vocabulary in West Yorkshire, so a lot of the dialogue doesn't ring true either. I was willing to give the series a second chance, but I shan't be barging children and old ladies out of the way to read a third.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, December 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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