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by Nick Stone
Michael Joseph, January 2006
576 pages
ISBN: 071814855X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

There are some books you know you are never going to be able to put out of your mind -- and Nick Stone's novel MR CLARINET is one of them.

First thing you need to know is that this is a monster of a debut novel on all levels. It weighs in at a shelf-shattering 560 pages. But I hammered through those in one day, relegating England stuffing Wales at rugby to a very poor second place! And not one of those pages is superfluous to the plot.

On the face of it MR CLARINET seems like it's going to be a bog-standard PI novel. But in fact it journeys so much deeper and becomes a study of a whole society, one destroyed by US foreign policy and by its own deeply flawed leaders.

The novel opens with former PI Max Mingus being offered eye-watering sums of money to go to Haiti in search of a missing boy. And we're talking more than telephone numbers here . . . $10 to $15 million, depending on how successful the mission is.

And the man behind the request, businessman Allain Carver is what you might call persistent. He's been phoning and writing to Max all the time he's been in prison and doesn't seem keen to take no for an answer. And that's why Max is tempted by the dosh -- a seven-year sentence for manslaughter has left him unable to work legally as a PI again.

Carver's son Charlie disappeared three years previously. He's not the only child to go missing in Haiti, where the mythical 'Mr Clarinet' is said to lure youngsters away from their families.

The job hasn't got very good prospects, though, when Max discovers that his predecessors have either died or been left scarred in more ways than one. And when he tangles with Haiti's Mr Big, as well as the country's voodoo legends, he wonders if his days are numbered as well.

MR CLARINET is an engrossing read from start to finish, but it's not an easy journey for hero or reader. You'll need a strong stomach both for the violence and for the plight of ordinary people in Haiti. Author Nick Stone is British-born, but lived in Haiti as a child and also in the mid-1990s. This knowledge of the country shines through every page of the book.

You'll never be satisfied with bog-standard crime fiction again after reading MR CLARINET. It's a book to challenge the reader on a political, personal and cultural scale. The crime fiction element is rock-solid, and Max is a hero with his own demons to deal with. But most impressive of all is the portrayal of a country riven by corruption and voodoo and in a state of collapse. At one point a character says to Max: "You know how this country runs on superstition . . . The dead rule this land."

There are enough loose ends left unravelled to suggest Stone has another adventure in mind for Max, and it will be interesting to see if he can replicate his success in another setting.

It's unbelievable that this is a first novel. It's vivid, assured, polished and powerful. Choose your own complimentary adjectives, as they're bound to apply. And whatever you do, read this book.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, January 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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