Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Watchers

by Jon Steele


How would you recognise an angel? There's a popular image of angels as preternaturally beautiful people with wings, immortal, selfless, and glowing with light and goodness. But what if that image is all wrong? Marc Rochat has been waiting for an angel all his life. He works in Lausanne Cathedral as "le guet", and his job is to call the hours and to shine his lantern around the belfry as he keeps watch.

Marc is handicapped with a twisted foot and a slow mind. As he goes on his daily rounds he talks to the bells and the skeletons in the crypt, and few others. He could almost be living his lonely life several hundred years in the past. Marc couldn't be a greater contrast to Katherine Taylor, a high class whore who lives a pampered life attending to the world's richest men. She never lacks for company or material wealth. She's living in Switzerland to escape the IRS and she misses her American family, but she can't go back. However she thinks she's living a fairytale.

Jay Harper seems to be at the other end of the social scale from Katherine. He dresses and smokes like a detective from some silver screen noir, and he can't remember what his job is or how he came to be in a drab hotel in Switzerland. He's told to go on the trail of a missing ex-athlete who had taken to drink. But too many aspects of the case don't make sense, and the deeper he digs the stranger it gets.

In Marc, Katherine and Jay, Jon Steele has created fascinating characters who are each very different from each other. It's just as well they are interesting, since The Watchers spends a long time warming up. A long time. The beginning is slightly curious, but nothing happens during the first 100-odd pages to instil a sense of urgency into the plot. During the next 100 pages there are visions of dead people and various other mysteries, but the pace remains glacial. Between Katherine's idle life, Marc's structured routine and Jay's confusion about what he's supposed to do with himself, not much happens other than quite a few meals and chance meetings. This part of the book is largely concerned with setting things up and introducing the characters, but it lacks bite.

However everything changes around chapter 18, when Harper realises that if he can't solve a series of recent murders he may be next on the hit list, and when Katherine's dream life turns into a nightmare. From this point on it's as though a blaze has been lit under the story, and it steams ahead full of action and suspense. Part of the mystery is the way we're unsure whether the evil at work is down to supernatural causes or more mundane crime. The author is very good at pushing readers towards one explanation or another before adding another twist to the puzzle. There's a police inspector and his team of laconic assistants who offer to help Jay, but he isn't sure whether he can trust them at all. They claim to be trying to help him work things out, but he believes they know a lot more than they're telling him. But he may have worse to contend with in the form of enemies who kill in the most spectacular ways and leave only shadows on photos and CCTV as the evidence that they were ever there.

The Watchers is a book of contrasts: ancient and modern, innocence and venality, luxury and degradation. I especially liked Marc Rochat. He spends time stuck in what he calls the beforetimes, reliving the past, and he sees things that other people can't. He's quite odd. His endearing simplicity can be funny and cute, but it never crosses over into mockery of his state.

There are a few brief outbursts of extreme violence and gore, but for the most part this novel is a carefully constructed puzzle rather than a shower of bullets and blood. It's slow to start, and as a result it takes a fair bit of patience to get into. However it's worth making the effort. The characters deliver on their promise and this intriguing story of fallen angels and haunting visions ends with a flourish.

5th July 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

  Not For The Squeamish  

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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson