Monk is a pacy action thriller set firmly in Dan Brown territory, this is one for the religious conspiracy fans out there. It’s not a blockbuster though, this is pared down, tighter, the storytelling is more focused and straightforward, which works better in my opinion. The hunt for the most valuable Christian relic is on, a treasure the world doesn’t even realise is missing, the real Shroud of Turin. An unscrupulous businessman intends to put the Shroud up for auction in a few days time, it could vanish forever unless a secret organisation within the Church can locate it and bringing home. Monk introduces Raphael Ward, a highly trained expert dedicated to the task of rescuing items of religious significance lost to/stolen from the church over the centuries. More than that, Raphael is a highly effective killer if need be and in this case terminal efficiency has been authorised. There is only one rule: don’t attract any public attention. The Mystiko Kataskopos operate in total secrecy.

Jerusalem AD33: The Lictor enjoys his job, so does his colleague, the whip’s leather tails are of varying length and have metal balls attached to tear the flesh. They have specific instructions: don’t kill the man, because a greater punishment is planned for him. The centurion on guard duty for the crucifixion beats back the angry crowd, as the man with the cross stumbles, he picks a strong man from the crowd to help the criminal carry the burden. The metal merchant seeks an audience with the king to beg for the body of his relative. He will surrender his own tomb for the burial. The king is satisfied the man has no subversive intention, he magnanimously grants the request. The merchant leaves, first he must buy a shroud, the best he can find. . .

September, last year, Praia da Batata, Lagos, Portugal. Harris is eyeing up the young girl, he’s annoyed when the ‘fat’ American woman gets in his way. He has work to do, he heads back to his hotel, there is a matter of business he needs to deal with before he can come back for the girl. Room 214; the buyer enters, he has the money but Harris won’t show him the painting until he’s counted the cash, it’s a matter of who’s in charge, it’s all there anyway. He brings out the small Bellini, Madonna and Child, c.1430, tempura on panel, believed to have been destroyed in the Russian sector of Berlin after WWII. The buyer is satisfied but he wants to know who the seller is. Harris can’t stand that kind of curiosity, he’s been waiting for an excuse, kill the man keep the painting and the money. Harris pulls a knife, points at something to distract the buyer, then he lunges at the man. Every time he has done this it has worked, until now. The buyer doesn’t fall for the trick and he’s more than a match for Harris.

Present day English countryside. Raphael Ward is a dog trainer, high-grade security dogs with honed skills, for years Gemma has been his assistant, they are discussing one of the dogs, Raphael doesn’t think he’s working out but he’s one of Gemma’s favourites. They postpone a decision on the dog’s future. Raphael takes his own dog, Mia, for a hill run. He’s soaking up the fresh air and the scenery when a phone call brings him back to earth. His handler in the MK wants to meet in person, unusual, immediately, even more unusual, he’ll be there in an hour. The Cavendish Hotel is quiet, perfect for a meeting, Raphael’s handler tells him he is being entrusted with the most important mission the MK have ever undertaken. The item known as to them as the SS, is going to be auctioned and Raphael’s job is to retrieve it before that happens, he only has a few days to do so. Fortunately, they have the name of the seller: Sir Desmond Swann.

Armed with the seller’s name Raphael heads to London. The first task is to survey Swann’s penthouse apartment in Mayfair. The problem is he not the only one casing the house, Raphael sees a young woman already on the job. He doesn’t know who she’s working for but he decides to hear what she has to say before making a decision about her, she has no idea her life may depend on the answers she gives. Catherine ‘Cat’ Morgan is a detective constable in the Met, her brother was also a policeman on undercover duty. Swann, (drugs, prostitution, people smuggling and arms), was the target of the operation. Her brother was lures to his death three months ago and Cat wants Swann to pay. Raphael decides to let her join him, she thinks he’s with intelligence or special ops.

They get into the penthouse but two thugs catch them searching the place. Cat is shocked by the violence Raphael meters out, the ruthless efficiency and cold calm. They flee but the pair are soon embroiled in a fight for their lives as Swann is prepared to protect his treasure by any means. Whether they can trust each other or the people around them is a moot point. But bringing Cat into his solo operation has changed things for Raphael, she makes him re-evaluate his role in MK, he has always believed his cause to be righteous but does the end always justify the means?

Light and fast, this action tale has more subtlety than Dan Brown and fewer flights of fancy. There are a couple of decent surprises along the way and a nice little kicker at the end. A more modern twist on events than is usual in this kind of thriller. Raphael is a good character and Cat a nice foil. The second novel is well set up by Monk plenty of fun and games, there’s a mild subversion of the conspiracy form which you might enjoy, it certainly doesn’t interfere with the action if not.

This is the first novel in The Dark Steps Series, the second novel Protector will be released next year. Parker is also the author of the Marcus Kline trilogy: Influence, Belief and Faith.

Paul Burke 3*

Monk by Chris Parker
Urbane Publications 9781912666560 pbk Nov 2019