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by Susan Hepburn
Allison and Busby, April 2005
288 pages
ISBN: 0749083832

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GHOST OF A CHANCE is a cheerfully shambolic (in a good way) and exuberant debut novel which was on to a winner with me almost before it started, as it's set in my home town of Cheltenham, and has my place of work, the University of Gloucestershire, lurking in the background.

Mike Brodie is fed-up with people thinking she's a man. And she has the routine off pat: "Don't tell me. You were expecting a man. So was my mother, and she never forgave me for it. I got lumbered with a minor variation of the name she'd chosen for a boy. Michal. That's M-I-C-H-A-L. Like King David's wife in the Bible." And she has a god-daughter to keep a beady eye on. And she is a saxophonist in several bands. And she runs a music shop. And she does voice-overs. And she has a very pushy manager who books her engagements at the drop of a music stand. So it's not surprising that she's knackered and wants a rest.

Her friend Maggie invites her to Berwick Grange, an Oxfordshire stately home, which is just about to be opened to the public. But the trouble begins when she's ambushed by some rather vicious armed men on her way there, and continues downhill from that point to where she finds a body floating in an ornamental fountain. From then on, Mike's looking over her shoulder.

GHOST OF A CHANCE is a very pleasant debut novel for Susan Hepburn, complete with a very engaging heroine. But it could do with an edit. Hepburn's style reminds me of Judith Cutler -- a chatty style but with more waffle than a restaurant kitchen. And there are far too many people kicking around. In the end I gave up trying to work out who they all were and hoped they weren't too important. Generally they weren't. Cameos are all very well, but to be used with caution in a 280-page crime novel.

The book sprawls somewhat, and has too much flitting around Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire -- occasionally I had to backtrack to work out where Mike was. And it shows one of the common faults of the debut novel -- too much signposting with the infamous 'if I'd known then' sort of line.

OK, criticism over. What Hepburn does do is to strike a good balance between dry humour, sharp dialogue and dark undertones. There's a cracking interrogation scene involving sign language, and Hepburn captures perfectly the atmosphere of Cheltenham during Gold Cup week when it's over-run with Irish horseracing fanatics. But the last few pages are clumsy and ponderous as Mike and Co plod through what happened for the benefit of the reader and a room full of Irishmen.

Out of the colossal supporting cast, my favourites were Mike's sidekick Gaffer, Alison the vicar and the sparkly jacket band, complete with the drummer with a toupee like a squashed guinea pig.

All in all, GHOST OF A CHANCE is a sparky little debut with a heroine who doesn't outstay her welcome and the added fun for me of spotting the local in-jokes. Apparently the title comes from a jazz tune, but I can't get the classic song by Irish group The Blades out of my head . . .

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, June 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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