The Milan Contract by Stephen Franks

One of the most rewarding things that I have done this year is become a reviewer on Reedsy Discovery. At first, I wondered if reading books to review them would become a chore and take away the joy of reading for me but that has fortunately not been the case. I would hate to live in a mindset where the thought of reading another book would fill me with dread. Luckily, this has not been the case.

As a part of publishing my thoughts on books on the website, I have built up a small band of followers who get alerted every time I make a comment or publish a review. I have to say that not many of them communicate with me or like what I write (which begs the question why follow me?) but a follower who regularly communicates and contributes his likes is Stephen Franks.

It seemed only right, therefore, to return the favour and as he had, fairly recently, published his first novel, I thought I would give it a go. This is double-edged: I would want to give an honest review but what if it was rubbish? Could I risk giving my best follower a terrible review? Did I have it in me to compromise my integrity and save his feelings?

Luckily, this was a dilemma that I did not have to face as I have been pretty impressed by Stephen Franks’ debut novel. It is a fast-paced thriller, with an array of diverse characters which masquerades initially as a police detective murder investigation being pursued by the Milan police; however, this book becomes much more than that, delving into history and espionage and the dark, dark criminal world with a plot that surprises.

It has a sort of James Bond feel to it as well which made it feel more vintage in the way that it has been put together, perhaps because of the mention of Russians and communism but this all added to its appeal, especially after having just read From Russia With Love.

So what happens in it? Franks’ protagonist, Lieutenant Conza is called to the scene of a rather cold killing outside the Hotel Napoli in Milan where a guest leaving for the airport is gunned down. But was the right person targeted that day or was it a case of mistaken identity? Pete Salterton certainly felt like it was meant to be him as he watches it happen from his hotel balcony and the victim is his doppelganger…

As we follow Conza’s investigation into the murder, we are introduced to the politics between the different departments of the police as well as the background to the victim, which takes us to the dissolution of East and West Germany and the tensions that can only arise from two very differing ideologies. Throughout the book, it is not clear if Lukas was the intended target and this adds to the suspense.

Conza discovers that the death of Lukas Stolz is not as clear cut as solving a murder: he has become involved in something complicated and far-reaching that could detrimentally impact his career and maybe even threaten his life.

I thought, when I started the book, that it was going to be complicated and jerky as it introduced characters from diverse backgrounds and jumped about a bit in terms of location. The murder involves some people of dubious intent and as a result of their plans, some innocents become embroiled like Kadin and his father as well as Nyala, Kadin’s friend, victims themselves of the subversive and violent world of organised crime. Stephen Franks’ control of the progression of his plot means that there is nothing that lacks clarification and it all evolves at the right pace, the pieces slotting together with ease. In this, it is very well planned and executed. And as Conza discovers more, I felt compelled to finish it, to find out the truth and it all leads to a very satisfying climax.

There is just the right amount of menace and violence: enough to make your stomach tense and with detail sufficient to fit the story, but not too much to become gratuitous.

Franks has created a likeable character in Raffy Conza. He is a man without attachments but he is dogged and unjaded; methodical and thorough – just what you would want in your investigator. I’m not sure if Franks has plans to bring him back but I would certainly look forward to and, without doubt, read another Conza book. Actually, if Franks writes anything else, I would seek it out.

Parts of this review were first published on Reedsy Discovery.

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