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by Aly Monroe
John Murray, May 2013
480 pages
18.99 GBP
ISBN: 1848544863

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It is possible to imagine a different beginning to this story, one in which Peter Cotton is briefed about this mission to the newly-formed United Nations, arrives in New York and - not expecting any trouble - is abducted and used as a guinea pig for the testing of truth drugs. But Aly Monroe approaches things rather differently and presents us with an opening where all those things have already happened and Cotton is waking from his drug-induced coma, with no idea where he is or, initially, who he is. He is informed that he had been dumped in a doorway on a street in Manhattan, having been injected with at least three 'truth drugs', and that he is now in the private Ogden Clinic, normally reserved for military veterans and other (important) patients. He finds that he is incapable of retaining his balance, appears to be colour blind and is subject to hallucinations. He has to find out what happened to him and who was responsible. Above all, he needs to know why, when he could so easily have been disposed of, he has been allowed to live.

We are given many of the other symptoms of his condition - his inability to taste food, his speaking in a voice that appears to be somebody else's and his unreliable memory. In fact, we are given rather too much in the way of analysis of the effects of the drugs and more than a quarter of the book has elapsed before Cotton leaves the clinic. During all this time he doesn't actually do anything except speak mainly to his constant companion, the psychiatrist Dr. Sanford. He has other visitors, the conversations with whom are clearly intended to suggest where the responsibility for the attack on him might lie. However, they are couched in language that is, to say the least, ambiguous, with the result that it is not entirely clear what the author intends us to understand from them. Monroe sets herself a real challenge in deciding to allow her main character to spend so much time recovering from his ordeal and therefore static but unfortunately, it cannot be said that she quite rises to it.

When Cotton does eventually leave the clinic he decides not unnaturally to take a rest cure at Narragansett, Rhode Island, where his sister has arranged lodging for him with a friend. He becomes more involved than he wants to be in the love life of a somewhat adolescent war widow who lives next door and a wounded war veteran who is keen on the widow. He has the impression that there is always someone watching him and learns that he has been part of an experiment associated with Project Chatter, a program initiated by the US Navy, designed to test the use of certain drugs in interrogation. That his progress is still being secretly monitored becomes clear when a senior British agent procures an attractive Argentinean girl for him, the intention being that she should report back on his potency! On the whole, however, Narragansett appears to provide an opportunity for recuperation and little else.

Conversations between Cotton and others, both British and American, throughout the book are often so cryptic that it is by no means easy to establish exactly who was responsible for the attack on him and precisely what the point was. Perhaps it is necessary to be familiar with the rather obscure Project Chatter itself. This same 'political' language was evident also in Monroe's previous novel, ICELIGHT, but there the plot always had the reader in suspense. BLACK BEAR, as well as failing to achieve quite the same suspense, seems to carry a lot of material, not all of which is strictly necessary.

Arnold Taylor is a retired Examinations Board Officer, amateur writer and even more amateur bridge player.

Reviewed by Arnold Taylor, April 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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