Mike Phillips is a rare bird indeed. A homegrown black British author who writes classic, gutsy crime thrillers peppered with cultural insight, a touch of humour and a gritty measure of urban realism. On top of this it’s refreshing to find a British thriller writer with conviction enough in his genre to set the story on home soil rather than seeking kudos in the mean streets of downtown Los Angeles or continental Europe. Here the action takes place in the decidedly unglamorous streets of Camden Town and Kilburn and the low-rent council estates of North London. But who needs glamour when you’ve got an author who knows his stuff this well?
An Image To Die For is the fourth Mike Phillips novel to follow the loves, life and exploits of worldly-wise black journalist Sam Dean. When he is persuaded by old friend and independent TV producer, Wyndham Davis, to track down a witness in a programme he is making, there is more to the job than meets the eye. Wyndham is producing a programme investigating the possible miscarriage of justice in a high-profile case involving the murders of a young woman and her child. But someone doesn’t want the programme to reach the screen. Anonymous death threats are received, the key witness vanishes and a young programme researcher is viciously stabbed to death on the housing estate where the original murders took place. With a journalist’s mix of dogged persistence and good fortune, Sam Dean begins to uncover a convolution of mysteries and hidden agendas. Along the way he encounters self-important TV executives, a family of menacing Irish moneylenders, pit-bull owning villains and a charismatic Yorkshire taxi driver who’s a Madonna impersonator on his nights off. As the investigation unfolds it becomes clear that the answers he is seeking lie closer to Wyndham – and to himself – than is comfortable for either of them.
This is an unpredictable story, made all the more so because there is no single thread to the plot which if pulled long and hard enough eventually, and implausibly, unravels a tangled web of intrigue and deceit. Here there is no shadowy Mr Big playing the puppet master, no sinister criminal conspiracy, serial killers or drug-crazed hitmen. Rather the characters are driven by motives as trivial, illogical and ordinary as everyday life itself. The plot is all the more unsettling and believable for it. This is everything a good crime thriller should be. The hero is engaging, the characters well drawn, the plot intricate yet plausible and the outcome unexpected. Worth putting on your Christmas list.
Reviewed by Jon Mitchell