Please note that this review may contain spoilers for its prequel, The Falcon’s Malteser. You can read my review of this novel [here].
Public Enemy Number Two is the second novel in Anthony Horowitz’s The Diamond Brothers series and was first published in 1987. It was preceded by The Falcon’s Malteser (1986) and followed by South by South East (1991), Three of Diamonds (2004 – consisting of the short stories The Blurred Man, The French Confection and I Know What You Did Last Wednesday), How the Greek Stole Christmas (2008) and The Double Eagle Has Landed (2011). The stories follow the cases of Tim Diamond (real name: Herbert Simple), a London-based private detective, and his younger brother Nick who is infinitely more competent.
Six months have passed since the case of the Falcon’s Malteser and Nick and Herbert have long since spent all of their reward. Just as the brothers are run out of baked beans and prepare for starvation, their luck finally changes when Herbert finally finds a new case. A Ming vase called the Purple Peacock has been stolen from the British Museum and his client is paying generously for its safe recovery.
At the same time, Nick is approached by Chief Inspector Snape and offered a job of his own. Snape wants him to go undercover in a young offenders institute and befriend Johnny Powers – Public Enemy Number One. Although Powers is only fifteen his has already become the leader of a London gang and Snape needs to know the name of the person who is fencing all of the goods that Powers has stolen.
Although Nick initially refuses, he quickly discovers that he has no choice. On a school trip to a stately home he is framed for having stolen a priceless ruby. Nick is condemned to spend eighteen months in prison and naturally finds himself as the cellmate of Powers. The choice that he has is obvious. He either needs to survive his sentence or find out the identity of the Fence. However, things become more complicated as he discovers that Powers is planning a gaol break…
Public Enemy Number Two is an entertaining light read for middle grade and young teen readers. It largely stands alone from The Falcon’s Malteser, making a few brief references to the events of this story but not relying on any of its plot, and so could be largely enjoyed even if you have not read this novel. I feel that I should probably note that there are some references that may go over the head of very young readers. Although this novel has been republished many times (most recently 2012), it has not aged very well. References to the Iron Curtain, Noel Coward and Mother’s Pride may need explaining to the modern reader, while concepts such as council housing and O-levels may be somewhat confusing to anyone who is not English.
When compared to The Falcon’s Malteser, it’s clear that this novel does not have the same appeal as its prequel. As I mentioned in my earlier review, The Falcon’s Malteser is a light-hearted homage to 30s detective stories. Despite its ridiculous concept, it boasts a sound mystery story that gradually develops to a satisfying twist ending. It’s kind of a shame that it was such a fun story as Public Enemy Number Two’s biggest flaw is that it’s simply not as good.
Gone are the film noir influences on the plot. This time the novel is far more straightforward and lacking in any real surprises. While The Falcon’s Malteser was very fast moving and covered a lot of ground in little more than two hundred pages, Public Enemy Number Two always felt as though it was dragging its heels. Even though it is only a short story, it still felt as though it was too padded out. There were points of the tale that really served no purpose – such as Nick’s run in with Big Ed – which felt as though they were only included to increase the page count. The twists of the story were also underwhelming. While I don’t doubt that very young readers may be taken by surprise by some of them, this is still not because they are effective. It is purely because some of them come entirely out of left field.
There is an element of dumb luck in this novel instead of any sort of skill. Nick finds a slingshot in an early chapter entirely by chance and it saves his life soon after. The brothers need to investigate a subterranean tunnel and find a torch conveniently on the floor just before they enter. Nick has a fifty-fifty chance of defusing a bomb correctly and naturally guesses right. The twists also vary wildly in quality. Some of them I’m not sure even really constitute as twists. Some, like the identity of the person who set up Nick, is blatantly obvious from the second that it happens. However, my dissatisfaction with others is harder to describe.
The identity of the Fence is both incredibly obvious and wholly illogical. While Nick actually foreshadows this character quite early in the tale (if you pick up on this as I did, the rest of the story becomes even less satisfying), his eventually reason for deducing this is based on the flimsiest of logic. I won’t spoil it for you in case you read the novel but I’ll just say that he jumps upon this with no evidence whatsoever based on the utterance of a single word. It really is lucky for him that his guess is correct.
However, the story’s saving grace is that it’s very funny. Nick’s dry wit still carries across in the narrative. Although he talks like a fifty-year old gumshoe, it’s easy to excuse because he can be utterly hilarious. His dry observations occasionally fall flat but they are usually comedy gold. My personal favourite was an off-handed comment about Herbert’s attempt to help him break out of gaol taking the form of a Black and Decker drill (sans plug) baked into the centre of a cake. It’s such a wonderful image that perfectly encapsulates Herbert’s clueless nature that it’s impossible not to smile while reading it.
Characterisation within the story is (somehow) even weaker than that of the first book. While the cast of the first novel was undeveloped, they were still incredibly memorable. The skinny “Fat Man”, the femme fatale widow with the pet alligator, the flamboyant German hitmen – all were all caricatures of the sort of characters that are common in film noir. The secondary cast of Public Enemy Number Two are nowhere near as interesting. Beyond reoccurring characters such as Snape and Boyle (neither of who have much to do this time around), there are only really a few gangsters and an irate French teacher. None of these really had any distinct characteristics of note.
In terms of the major cast, my biggest issue was the lack of Herbert. As his search for the Purple Peacock took a back seat in this novel (unlike the box of maltesers which was a constant presence in The Falcon’s Malteser), Herbert was not present for much of this story. Part of the fun of the previous novel was Herbert’s incompetence – the fact that he pretended to be an ace detective but was really significantly dumber than his thirteen year old brother. As a large chunk of this novel was Nick working alone, this chemistry was entirely absent.
Nick also felt like a very different character this time around. I noted that he was rarely fazed by the danger that he faced in The Falcon’s Malteser, but his bravery seems to have deteriorated into full blown psychosis. Nick now seems to have become a problem child. During his trial, he never shows any sort of concern and just seems to treat it as a bit of a joke. Later in the story things get even worse as he flat out kills a number of people. Fair enough, they are gangsters, but Nick is a thirteen year old boy. It just did not feel right to have him murdering people and yet not batting an eyelid about it. For me, this made me dislike him. Nick was a fun character in the previous novel but this time it felt as though he has gone too far.
So, to conclude, Public Enemy Number Two is an enjoyable light read and is genuinely funny in places but it just can’t escape from the fact that its prequel is a far superior story. Public Enemy Number Two has issues with pacing, plotting and characterisation and the result is a thriller that is just a bit too forgettable. I’ll return to this series in a future review and I really hope that the series picks up again in South by South East.
Public Enemy Number Two can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk