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It’s January, London is caught in a blizzard, and the best rower in the Oxford University Boat Club has gone AWOL, just as the trials begin for the Boat Race.

So the club calls in private eye Sam Falconer. Sam is an engaging, complex character – I came across her after her creator Victoria Blake kept leaving comments (don’t panic, they were friendly ones) on my blog. I became intrigued. I simply had to investigate…

While Sam is based in London she’s originally from Oxford (the brother is an English don and her stepfather is a maths professor in a senior position in the groves of academe). Much of the action in Cutting Blades jumps back and forth between London (particularly around Fulham) and Oxford.

The cover of  "Cutting Blades" by Victoria BlakeSo how to describe Sam? In the cover blurb she is “strong but flawed”, which is a good summary. She’s a bit narky and insecure, with a deep fear of deep water, avoids washing dishes, smokes sometimes, seems to live on takeaways, has the occasional pint.

Her Hoover hates her, and her part-time assistant at the Gentle Way Investigation Agency is a gay ex-cop called Alan. Sam also happens to be a former world judo champion and has a therapist called, er, Reg.

Just as well, because in Cutting Blades Sam keeps having terrible nightmares. Her father – a “trained killer” in the SAS – is supposed to be a war hero who was killed in action in Oman in 1974 – when Sam was only four. But three decades later he has turned up again, very much alive, to haunt Sam and her family. Make that “her highly dysfunctional family”. Sam and her mum aren’t exactly the best of buddies.

There may be a bit more of a back-story in all this, though I wouldn’t know; this was my first Victoria Blake novel (I began with the second in the series).

Twists and characters

The plot is pacy, there are several neat twists, and VB’s writing has plenty of fine observational touches along the way, from “a man with a zigzag nose” to a couple of “exuberant spider plants in severe need of contraceptive advice”. Oh, and a police detective who “must have suffered from bad skin” in his youth “because his cheeks and neck looked as if someone had dripped acid on him”.

The other main characters are well drawn, from Sam’s next-door neighbour Edie (who is a real gem: a 79-year-old tobacco-smuggling widow) to sidekick Alan (while he’s gay he’s not a cardboard cutout) and her fat cat Frank.

(Note to literature students: there must be a decent thesis out there about crime fiction and the relationship of modern female detective characters to their feline companions.)

That Sam happens to be a former judo champion – and also has an ex-boyfriend who’s a cop – might seem way too good to be true, but Sam doesn’t win every tussle she is in, and it’s all kept firmly within the bounds of social realism rather than a hardboiled bish-bosh caper thing.

If anything, I felt all the sporting themes (dedication and failure, the physicality and psychology of sport at the highest level, what you feel after you retire and so on) were tightly interwoven between Sam’s former judo career and the rowing story.

The Irish angle

Besides missing persons, mayhem and dead bodies in rivers, there is a wider angle: I call it the “bigger history” bit. Without spoiling the plot, half way through the book (page 212 in my edition) it shifts from the missing person case to the political instability in Northern Ireland at the time:

The assembly’s just been suspended again and there’s all the stuff in the papers about military intelligence running double agents – Nelson in the UDA and Scappaticci in the IRA – and innocent people being killed to protect their identities. Also the Bloody Sunday inquiry is going on…

So the legacy of the war in Northern Ireland lingers and simmers away in the background, as Sam goes about her missing person case while trying to work out what’s up with her somewhat off-the-wall father.

My one quibble (WARNING: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) is how the storyline about Northern Ireland and Sam’s dad is built up yet is allowed to fizzle out around page 387. Is this taken up again in the rest of the series? I wouldn’t know; like I said, this is my first Sam F novel. But definitely not the last.

Cutting Blades
by Victoria Blake
Orion Books (2006 paperback, 400pp)