With her debut novel Jack in the Box, Hania Allen makes her pitch for a place in the highly competitive crime fiction genre. Set at the turn of the millennium, the novel follows DCI Yvonne ‘Von’ Valenti as she attempts to solve a murder which harks back to a number of unsolved cases from 1985 whilst she simultaneously battles to gain the respect of her colleagues and charges.
The victim is Max Quincey, theatre impresario and brother of Von’s immediate superior, Chief Superintendent Richard Quincey. Max’s murder coincides with his bringing back to The Garrimont Theatre in London’s West End a play called “Jack in the Box”. The same play was running in 1985 when a number of rent boys were murdered. Beside each body was found a Jack in the Box merchandise doll from the play, the dolls’ eyes scratched out in a gruesome parody of the mutilation suffered by each of the victims. Max’s murder appears to mirror these earlier cases, right down to the souvenir doll left beside the body. The fact that the dolls are central to the plot immediately presents a problem. Of 1985, for example, we’re told that “most of London had them. People took them to work, walked down the street carrying them like children.” Many other such references are made to the dolls’ ubiquity, so that the entire plot rests upon the reader accepting the notion that a play staged in a minor London theatre could spark a merchandising craze that would see grown adults carrying around children’s dolls en masse wherever they went.
Nor is this the only point at which the reader is required to suspend belief. The rules of the genre dictate that coincidence plays a part in crime fiction, but this is taken to an extreme in Jack in the Box, with more or less every character seemingly implicated. Eventually the connections become so tangled and convoluted that they stretch credulity to breaking point. The novel’s dialogue is similarly problematic. The dynamic of a female DCI trying to succeed in a male-dominated field is an interesting one. Unfortunately, the main way in which she seeks to fit in and to command respect is to engage in banter with her male colleagues that is so contrived and awkward that it all too often fails to ring true.
All of this is a shame because there are the seeds of an interesting and engaging crime story here. At times the pace picks up and the narrative becomes genuinely gripping, but it’s difficult not to conclude that the novel would have benefited from tighter editing and a more compact plot. There are also interesting glimpses into Von’s sense of vulnerability, so that her command of the investigation is offset by moments which find her curled-up weeping on the floor, or approaching the victim’s body with a sense of “shame…and respect bordering on reverence.” Much of that vulnerability has its roots in her estrangement, many years earlier, from her daughter but, frustratingly, this potentially interesting strand is introduced and then barely developed until the novel’s final lines, when the subplot is resolved in what is, sadly, a final twist too far.
There is a suggestion in the promotional material accompanying the novel that this may be the first of a series of outings for Von. There are moments in Jack in the Box, in the more memorable sections of the plot and in the hints of emotional depth in the character, that suggest that DCI Yvonne Valenti may yet carve for herself a place amongst the more durable fictional detectives who populate the genre. On the evidence of this outing, however, it’s very much an instance of ‘case not proven’.