Sent to Manhattan as part of the British effort to build intelligence into the new United Nations Organisation ‘from the foundations up’, Agent Peter Cotton wakes up in the Ogden Clinic on East 76th Street, a private facility reserved for very special patients and veterans.
He is told he was found badly bruised, slumped in a doorway, and that he had been injected with at least three ‘truth-drugs’. He is lucky to be alive.
Plagued by vertigo, colour blindness and tunnel vision, and unable to be certain what is real and what hallucinatory, Cotton must piece together what has happened to him, find out who is responsible and why. What he discovers is even more unsettling. His biggest uncertainty? Why he has been allowed to live.
I’ve been looking forward to the latest Peter Cotton thriller ever since I reviewed the award winning Icelight last year. Cotton is one of those characters you’ll either warm to or won’t, there’s no middle ground but fortunately for me I’m in the camp that likes him for his quirks and his dry personality. He knows what he wants and for the most part he gets it, albeit in a roundabout and intelligent way.
Black Bear starts off slowly; our protagonist is recovering from a cocktail of life threatening drugs in a New York clinic and we discover his recovery is slow and laboured. Aly Monroe – and Peter Cotton – spend a good deal of time fighting the after affects – 120 pages in total – and I have to admit I did begin to wonder what direction the book was taking. Normally, as far as I’m concerned, reading about someone cooped up in a room hallucinating and trying to figure out why it happened and who was responsible would have been quite insular but this is where Aly Monroe excels. She kept me intrigued and held my interest throughout his stay at the Ogden Clinic thanks mainly to an engaging narrative and compelling dialogue.
Many of you, who have read any of the previous Peter Cotton books, will notice the difference in style within the first few chapters. Black Bear has a different feel to it, a slower pace to the others, more psychological and concentrating for the best part with recovery and the fascination of who attacked our intrepid spy. It’s this question that keeps Cotton focused throughout allowing Monroe to present an incredibly complex storyline, despite the fact that not much happens!
Cotton felt enormously tired, as if each word he had spoken had been bruising
his brain and he simply had no more space left for any more bruises. He could see a
kind of kaleidoscopic fracturing of colours under his eyelids. These broken bits began
to spin and melt into a single colour. It was a repulsive shade of urine and tangerine.
‘He’s screwed,’ said another American voice, one that Cotton had not heard.
‘He says he’s screwed.’
If he had been able to, Cotton would have nodded. The translation was just right enough. He passed out again on a feeling almost like relief.
Despite this sedentary start the book comes alive for me when Cotton leaves the clinic and moves to Narragansett Rhode Island and spends two months recuperating, much to the chagrin of his boss who doesn’t believe he needs this time off. I was immediately transported back in time to the late 1940’s, I absolutely adored the writing in this passage of the book and with every turn of the page I felt as if I was truly exploring every facet of life in small town America in the 1940’s. The Narragansett narrative is powerfully evocative with gossip, drama and dubious friendships and relationships – and a little spying – and Cotton soon finds out that his two months of recuperation isn’t going to go quite as planned.
There are a number of colourful characters in Narragansett each playing their part and allowing the story to evolve and move slowly forward. Cotton becomes involved with small town life in more ways than he cared to but this was one of the facets of the book that intrigued me.
Atmospheric, engrossing and intelligently written, Black Bear tantalises from the very first page until its conclusion.
- Hardcover: 480 pages
- Publisher: John Murray (9 May 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1848544863
- ISBN-13: 978-1848544864