“Altar of Bones” Philip Carter (Simon and Schuster) – Novel Review

Altar of Bones novel by Philip Carter

Looking for an international thriller that grips you and won’t let go until you finish the book?  Want fully-drawn, credible characters who don’t drop out of character to keep the momentum of the plot?  Want a writer you can trust?

Then “Altar of Bones” is for you.  Philip Carter is a pseudonym that marks a change of direction for an experienced espionage novelist.  The name is new, the writing style appropriately different and the novel draws on a wealth of knowledge, equally at home in present day USA and Stalinist Russia.

Zoe Dmitroff is a defensive attorney specialising in defending domestic violence victims.  Her mother is head of the local Russian mafiya.  Her grandmother both believed was killed in a car accident years ago.  Until the body of an apparently homeless women turns up with Zoe’s address written on a slip of paper stuck in her throat (she’d attempted to swallow it at the time of her death).

Meanwhile her grandmother’s former husband, Mike O’Malley, dies of heart failure, leaving a confession for his two adult sons.  One of the sons is murdered but not before he gets a message to his brother who knows that the only thing that can clear his father’s name is a film in the possession of Zoe’s grandmother.  That film was his father’s life assurance and once his father’s enemies learn that the family no longer have the film, there is nothing to stop them killing the one surviving son, Ry O’Malley.  Readers learn that the brother’s assassin, Yasmin Poole is the lover and employee of a billionaire businessman who owes a debt to former KGB man Nikolai Popov, and later claims to be working for the CIA.

Zoe learns, thanks to a clue in a letter posted to her from her grandmother, that she’s a guardian of the altar of bones (which she assumes is an icon) and travels to Paris to unravel further clues.  There she learns her grandmother, a studio gopher, had befriended Marilyn Monroe.  Her mother sends one of her bodyguards to protect her.  Ry follows her because he needs the film.  Yasmin Poole also follows.

By pooling information Ry and Zoe discover that Mike O’Malley was actually a double agent and his KGB controller became Nikolai Popov who’d discovered the altar of bones through Zoe’s great grandmother and was desperate to re-learn its location.   Zoe’s grandmother had given Marilyn Monroe an amulet containing liquid from the altar of bones which Marilyn talked of giving to John F Kennedy.  Popov, fearing JFK actually has the amulet, is then involved in the plot to assassinate JFK and Mike O’Malley drafted as a second gunman.  Zoe’s grandmother filmed the assassination, her professionally shot film clearly shows O’Malley as Popov’s gopher.  Popov appears to have gone to ground after the assassination but a man claiming to be his son (and very similar in appearance) turns up. 

A game of cat and mouse ensues as Zoe has to unlock the riddle her grandmother left her and learn all she can about the altar of bones before her would-be assassins catch up with her.  There’s also the question of how far she can trust Ry.  And the bigger riddle why her grandmother chose her instead of her mother, when the lineage of guardians passes from mother to daughter.

Pacey, but credibly so with characters allowed to draw breath inbetween.  The characterisation is strong too.  Both Ry and Zoe are ambiguous, taking advantage of not so pure backgrounds.  Zoe is allowed to use her self-defence skills and doesn’t just sit on the sidelines.  A thoroughly contemporary thriller.

Altar of Bones will be published in the UK in May 2011.

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