There are some professions that give the noble art of lying a bad name. Politicians, for starters, and then their brothers and sisters in arms, lawyers. Have you ever noticed that both jobs share the same skillset? But I digress. It could be argued that novelists are born liars, but at least we know that what they are telling us never actually happened. But the true monarchs of misinformation, the sovereigns of sophistry and the bards of bullshit are, surely, estate agents (for any American readers, that’s what we call realtors here in Britain.)
Don Challenor is what Monty Python might have called at ex-estate agent. He is no more. He has over-egged his last pudding and hyped up his last hovel. The prestigious London property sellers Mendez Chinnery have, as the saying goes, let him go. He has been, to quote the late lamented Alan Clark, economical with the actualité once too often. He is at that stage of life when it is becoming harder and harder to slip into a new job. Not only is he sans employment, but he is also sans wife. Fran has married again and is still lawyering away, but with a new husband and his children. Challenor is surprised, then, when she makes contact to offer him a cash in hand one-off job. It sounds simple. He is to travel down to Cornwall, assess an executive-style property, and present her with a glowing file which will attract well-heeled buyers like moths to a flame. The house, Wortalleth West, was formerly owned by millionaire businessman Jack Harkness, but it has now been signed over to his former wife as part of a divorce settlement.
Wortalleth West is a futuristic building perched on a promontory overlooking the ocean, but as Challenor goes about his business he notices that within the house, the measurements don’t add up, and he comes to the conclusion that there is a hidden room within the building. Not only that, he has encountered a mysterious young housekeeper who calls herself Blake. Most troubling, however, is the fact that his visit to Cornwall has attracted the attention of a follower, complete with sinister dark glasses and blacked-out four-by-four vehicle.
Challenor had hoped for a breezy few days doing what he does best – romancing about the many virtues of a property and preparing an irresistible package of enhanced photographs and wildly colourful descriptions of its charms. Instead, he realises that Jack Harkness is on the run from the authorities for financial fraud, and deep within Wortalleth West lies a secret which desperate men are prepared to kill for.
Fran has insisted that Challenor send Blake packing, but things are not so simple. Blake has discovered a secret which links the fugitive Harkness to both a young woman who simply disappeared off the face of the earth many years earlier, and a local woman who appears to have supernatural powers.
The tone of the novel gets progressively darker with every page turned. The bland and eternally optimistic Challenor finds himself totally out of his depth in a swirling intrigue of financial fraud, a biochemical time-bomb and international gangsters who are determined to solve the mystery of Wortalleth West’s panic room.
I have read – and very much enjoyed – Robert Goddard’s trilogy (pictured below) set in the turbulent aftermath of The Great War, and featuring former pilot James Maxted, but Panic Room is the first of Goddard’s standalone novels I have come across. It is published by Bantam Books and will be available on 22nd March.