Charlie Fox − Action Girl

This feature written by Calum MacLeod appeared in Sherlock Magazine, with whose kind permission it is reproduced. It offers an excellent summary of the development of Charlie Fox's character and her progress through the first five books in the series.

Tough minded crime thrillers are no longer a male only province. Miss Marple may have been happy to do her sleuthing over afternoon tea and crumpets and leave the police to deal with the unpleasant business of bringing murderers to justice, but today's heroines are much more likely to get their hands dirty, if not actually bloody, in pursuit of crime.

Nor is it a case any more of toys for the boys and boys exclusively. Girls can also enjoy the thrill of handling an accurate firearm or fast moving vehicle.

And there is no heroine in British crime better equipped to look after herself or use a lethal machine than Zoë Sharp's Charlie Fox.

Charlie, or Charlotte Foxcroft to use her more formal birth name, is an ex-army fitness enthusiast and one time Special Forces candidate. Trained and, literally, deadly in unarmed combat, she is also an impressive shot and when a former lover claims 'she could shoot your eyeball straight out from between the lids without even smudging your mascara,' no overstatement is involved. Not for nothing is the first novel in the series called KILLER INSTINCT (2001).

Sharp's series takes the female led British crime story into territory previously marked blokes only with its gun-lore, armed and unarmed combat, loving descriptions of powerful motorbikes and high speed chases.

In her post-army career, Charlie is a self-defence instructor, fitness trainer, bouncer and latterly bodyguard, her preferred mode of transport a RGV250 Suzuki motorcycle.

The creation is actually not too far away from her creator. Sharp, who claims she would rather have a motorbike than a child, is one of the few female photojournalists in Britain to specialise in motor sport and before the post-Dunblane ban on handguns in the UK was an enthusiastic shooter, who now keeps her hand in at American shooting camps.

Little surprise then that Sharp describes Charlie arriving as almost a full grown character, 'a self-defence instructor with a slightly shady military background and a painful past.'

Charlie may know how to fight, but she also knows how to talk her way out of trouble as she proves in her interview to become a member of a nightclub security team in KILLER INSTINCT. When a tough male bouncer challenges her to demonstrate her martial arts skills, Charlie reduces him to laughter by telling him in detail of the damage he could do her and then adopting a mock-fisticuffs stance. The performance leads her prospective boss to ask if martial arts are just a waste of time.

'I shrugged. "I don't know," I said tiredly. "I don't teach martial arts. I teach self-defence."

'"And what's the difference?"

'"Self-defence," I said slowly, looking him straight in the eye, "is all about getting out of serious situations without getting hurt."

'The smile faded gradually and he looked rueful. He nodded understanding. "Like that?"

'"Yeah," I said, finding a smile of my own. "Just like that."'

Described by her creator as a tough self sufficient heroine who doesn't suffer fools gladly and can take care of herself, Charlie Fox is an antidote to the decorative female characters who are good only for screaming while they wait for their menfolk to come to the rescue. Charlie is more likely to come to the rescue of her man.

If fellow ex-military hero Lee Child's Jack Reacher is held up as a reaction to angst ridden urban male heroes of Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons, then Charlie can be safely classed as the anti-Bridget Jones. You won't catch her agonising over how much she eats or drinks or getting anxious about the absence of a man in her life. Charlie is a fighter and a survivor and if things do get on top of her she can always hop on the back of her Suzuki for some exhilaration or work the frustration out of herself with a few circuits around the gym.

She may be a tough lady, but Charlie has her scars. Some of them, like the five inch knife wound which reaches from underneath her right ear to her throat, are physical. Others are invisible, but have left their mark. The deepest wounds of all have been left by the rape attack which forced Charlie out of the army and left her, in the best noir tradition, something of a permanent outsider, out of step with her former military life, with civilian life and even with the people who should be closest to her.

These include her solidly respectable middle-class parents. Her father is a surgeon, whose professional detachment extends to his only daughter, while her mother is a Justice of the Peace whose devotion to the law goes even beyond backing Charlie in her own legal fight for justice. At the start of the series, Charlie and her parents are completely estranged, even to the point where she no longer uses the same surname, but gradually an uneasy understanding is reached.

Perhaps even more complex is her relationship with former lover Sean Meyer. Against all the rules, the couple get involved with each other while Sean is an instructor on the Special Forces course Charlie is participating in. Forcibly separated by the military, the pair are left with a legacy of distrust and mutual attraction. Thrown together in RIOT ACT (2002) when Sean and his brother become suspects in murder, Charlie's relationship with him takes on an extra layer of complication when she takes on jobs for Sean's high level security firm.

Charlie is not bound to a single location and although Lancaster is home, Sharp has taken her to a bodyguard training school in Germany and the millionaire haunts of Florida, but her most impressive use of geography comes in KILLER INSTINCT where Sharp even manages to make the run-down seaside resort of Morecambe exciting.

The murder of a not very talented karaoke singer soon after her very public fight with Charlie sees our heroine embarking on a new career on a nightclub security team and getting mixed up with the hunt for a homicidal rapist and organised drug dealing.

Hailed by critics as one of the best crime debuts for years, the book firmly established Charlie as a character readers would like to hear more of. With her physical toughness, mental coolness and wry humour and the hangover from her sharp exit from the army, Charlie Fox was too good to waste on a stand-alone novel.

RIOT ACT finds her still in Lancaster, but instead of working as a bouncer she has what should be the much more peaceable task of house-sitting for a friend. It doesn't turn out that way when an outbreak of crime raises racial tensions and turns the street into a violent battleground contested by teenage gangs, a ruthless force of mercenary security men and neo-Nazi vigilantes. Charlie herself is hunted by work-experience hitmen and finds life getting even more complicated by the reappearance of her old flame Sean.

Slightly more vulnerable and not quite as bitter as she was in the first book, Charlie even obtains a sidekick, Friday, the big, soppy, but muscular and sharp-toothed Rhodesian Ridgeback. Charlie is more empathetic and the introduction of Sean brings out emotions which she had been careful to hide in the first book. There are physical confrontations where Charlie really does seem to be out of her depth, and the book is the better for them. Charlie is still tough, make no mistake, but all the more attractive a heroine for falling well short of superwoman standards.

Making up for this is erstwhile lover Sean, who is presented as someone of near infallible skill in high speed driving, unarmed combat or shooting and as a close protection security consultant he carries a fearsome reputation before him. He is the role model Charlie aspires to match and for his part Sean recognises and respects a kindred spirit, someone who will not hesitate to do what is necessary to protect herself or get the job done, but Sean's physical invulnerability is tempered by the uncertainly he feels in his dealings with Charlie, the woman he thinks betrayed him, but who he cannot forget.

Charlie's relationship with Sean makes tentative progress in HARD KNOCKS (2003), her first overseas adventure and a step up a gear from a British crime milieu to unashamed action adventure territory which, with a switch of gender, tough guy authors like SAS veteran Chris Ryan or Andy McNabb might easily have written.

Charlie is asked by Sean to go undercover at a bodyguard training school in Germany to discover who killed their ex-comrade Kirk Salter, a man whom Charlie would once have gladly seen dead.

There are shoot-outs with automatic weapons, graphic descriptions of gunshot wounds, Russian gangsters and a hi-speed 1200km dash across the German autobahns in a powerful sports car, with kidnapping and ruthless security agents also added to the mix.

The experience brings uncomfortable reminders of Charlie's army career as once again she has to prove herself against chauvinistic males, but with the added complication she cannot allow herself to be too good at what she does for fear of showing her hand and giving away her undercover role.

As a character, Charlie is continuing to mature, especially regarding her relationship with Sean. She knows, almost as well as her parents, that he is bad for her, but she just cannot give him up. The truth about the couple's fall from grace is finally revealed in a make or break moment, yet Sharp retains an element of ambiguity as to whether the pair will rekindle their romance, and so the relationship remains on a professional basis at the start of FIRST DROP (2004) when Charlie takes on her first body guarding job proper for Sean, though it does not stay that way for long. Passions get the better of them, with the result Charlie has to defend herself from her young client's allegations she isn't even a real bodyguard, just somebody's girlfriend coming along for the ride.

Of course, this being Charlie, her first job for Sean does not turn out to be the simple baby-sitting task in the Florida sun she imagines.

A trip to the safe thrills of a theme park turns into real peril when the bullets start flying. Then Charlie discovers Sean and his security team have also disappeared. Unable even to turn to the police for help, fearing the gunman who tried to kill her was a cop, Charlie and her teenage principal are left to fend for themselves in what, to Charlie anyway, is a strange country with only her wits, a car and a SIG handgun.

Charlie may be a stranger to Florida, but Sharp is on more familiar territory. Each spring she travels to Daytona to cover motor racing, so it should come as little surprise Sharp joins the ranks of Child, John Connolly and Mark Mills as a British Isles author who can comfortably set a novel in the USA.

Again there is action and bloodshed and Charlie is once more forced into violence.

The experience sends her back home while she rethinks her professional future and, once again, her relationship with Sean. Her father is definite in his advice to her on that score: 'If you stay involved with Sean Meyer you will end up killing again. And next time, Charlotte, you might not get away with it.'

Despite this, the latest adventure ROAD KILL (2005) finds Charlie turning to Sean for support once again as she investigates the road crash which claimed the life of one of her closest friends and moves into The Fast and The Furious territory as she infiltrates a group of illegal road racers. A task which Charlie would seem to be ideally suited for.

The high octane, gun-toting action thriller. With Zoë Sharp and Charlie Fox around, it's not just a boys' own game.

For another independent view on the development of Charlie Fox's character, you may like to read Charlie Fox − A True Original, Helen Gratton's perceptive assessment of Charlie's evolution through the first six books in the series.