Charlie Fox − A True Original

This review, written by Nancy E Gratton on behalf of Heirloom Bookstore in York, Pennsylvania, coincided with the launch of SECOND SHOT Shot on both sides of the Atlantic in Autumn 2007. It offers a remarkable insight into the development of Charlie Fox's character through the six books in the series up to that date.

You can't accuse Zoë Sharp of easing you gently into her tales. In SECOND SHOT, you begin with a near-death experience, described in excruciatingly clear, clinical detail, from the perspective of the hovering-on-life's-edge protagonist, Charlie Fox. Charlie (never Charlotte) is the central character of Sharp's series of crime novels based on the life and times of a British "close protection" agent (that's "bodyguard" to us Americans). And Charlie is one of those rare creatures in crime literature − a true original.

Former military, washed out of the British Special Forces (but not for lack of skills), Charlie is a trained killer with few comfortable niches awaiting her, now that she's back in the civilian world. Until, that is, her former commanding officer (and current lover) Sean Meyer recruits her into the security firm he runs, now that he's also back "on the outside."

Crime fiction's female protagonists tend to fall into three basic types. First, there's the rather soft, sensitive type that can't leave a mystery unsolved, with varying degrees of fluffiness incorporated into their characters. These range from the engaging Miss Marple to the Nancy-Drew-grows-up types. The second variation is the more-or-less emotionally stunted, cerebral type, perhaps best personified by Patricia Cornwell's Kate Scarpetta − a sort of "just the facts" personality that says something about a woman working in a man's world. Finally, there's the overgrown sidekick type. These are women who get drawn into sleuthing because hubby or boyfriend does it for a living. In America, one of the best of these is Faye Kellerman's Rina Lazarus.

" . . . Charlie Fox diverges sharply from anything else on the bookshelves"

Technically, Charlie falls into this last group. She's her own woman, to be sure, but she wouldn't be working in the bodyguard business if it weren't for the man in her life. But at this point, Sharp's treatment of Charlie Fox diverges sharply from anything else on the bookshelves out there. Charlie's always been an outsider. Raised in comfortable circumstances, the progeny of parents who have both achieved success in their more conventional professional lives (mom in law, dad in medicine), Charlie has always been drawn to a wilder world.

She's turned her back on the proper life that her mother so desperately wishes for her − the pretty frocks, the properly filled-out social calendar − in favor of fast motorcycles, martial arts, and a deep longing for something, anything, to break the silence of the world of properly-bred English ladies.

Those yearnings eventually led her to enlist in the military, to which she turned in part to appal her parents and in part in a desperate search for a place where she belonged. She thought she found a home there, where she could put her inherent violence and physical skills to a socially acceptable use. Of course, as the Brits would say, that all went pear-shaped soon enough, and Charlie found herself out on her ear. Soon enough, she found herself back in the general population, trained mostly just to kill, and without a clue as to what to do with herself until her old commanding officer, Sean Meyer, recruits her into security work.

I'm taking the time to backfill some of Charlie's bio, mostly because it's crucial to getting close to the deeper parts of her character, to what makes her tick, and because the American reader only gets hints of the darker issues that underlie her feelings and choices. It's not that Sharp hasn't done a great job of laying all this out for us − she's done all that compellingly − it's just that she does it in the five books that preceded this one, and only one of them (FIRST DROP) is available in the U.S.

So, yes, Charlie comes into the business through a male contact, but she's never just an appendage or a mere reflection of her male counterpart's concerns. Charlie's got her own conflicts and Charlie's got her own issues − maybe a few more than is strictly necessary to keep the suspense humming, but since Sharp treats her as an essentially intelligent, and thus evolve-able, character, that's probably all to the good. Because within the framework of her crime-solving, Charlie's also confronting her own demons and disabilities. Refreshingly, for crime fiction, this is a character who actually grows up a little, with every experience.

". . . she grows up, grows stronger, grows smarter, moves on"

She's no fool, our Charlie. She's got enough self-awareness to recognize her failings when they bite her in the butt. Sometimes, on some issues, it takes more than a few bites before she takes action, but at least she's brave enough to do the one thing that most crime characters are never allowed to do: she grows up, grows stronger, grows smarter, moves on. A neat trick, that, and one for which author Zoë Sharp deserves great praise. It is ever so much safer to take a popular character and freeze her in amber, for fear of alienating original fans.

Reviewers are luckier than most. We don't just get to read the books currently slated for release − we often get to read all (or most, at least) of the books that came before. Usually that's only a temporary advantage, because everybody else can go to their neighborhood bookstore or log on to an Internet bookseller and order the previous releases, once they find a writer they like. In this case, however, that's just not possible, at least at present.

Charlie has already had all sorts of adventures, long before reaching American shores. Sharp's first Charlie Fox outing was published in the UK back at the dawn of this new century, with KILLER INSTINCT, and it wasn't until the fourth Charlie Fox book, FIRST DROP, that Sharp's novels were picked up by an American publisher, St. Martin's Press. Right now, the publisher has announced no plans to bring over the earlier, UK-focused volumes. That's a real shame, because in Charlie Fox we have an original protagonist's voice, and an extraordinarily well-developed character, but readers on this side of the Atlantic don't have a chance to reach back and discover, through the early books, how she came to be who she is. One can only hope St. Martin's will rethink its decision, and bring all of the Charlie Fox back numbers out in U.S. volumes.

For another independent view on the development of Charlie Fox's character, you may like to read Calum MacLeod's Charlie Fox − Action Girl, published in Sherlock Magazine.