Confidence by Ben Richards

Existential musings raise a slick crime drama above the predictable
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The Independent Culture

Ben Richards has published five previous novels, as well as writing extensively for television. His screenwriting expertise is exuberantly to the fore in Confidence, which reads so much like a superior television drama that it may even become one. Stylish, well paced and up to the minute, Richards' tale about an unsuccessful actress teaming up with a professional conman is raised above the predictable by its central character's existential musings on life and death.

Kerenza Penhaligan has been down on her luck in London for too long, after a promising start as a lauded Cordelia in King Lear. Her star has just about gone out; the only jobs she gets are voiceovers and bit parts in second-rate soaps; even those are few and far between. Meanwhile, her drama-school contemporary, the lovely but less talented Olivia Scott, graces the pages of Heat magazine and attends glittering awards ceremonies. Richards nails the particular bite of envy precisely, "a hard cyst" eating away at the innards. This finds an echo in the all-too-real illness of the sweet, perplexed Anna, Kerenza's best friend, who is dying of breast cancer.

An encounter in a bar changes everything. When Kerenza sees a man set upon by thugs, she slips into character as plucky rookie cop, a role she once played on television. So convincing is she that the villains back down, and into her life comes the man she saved: an enigmatic Welsh conman called Evan, with whom she falls in love. Evan takes her on a trip to a Welsh valley, where hawks are flown and wood fires burn, then offers her a starring role that offers great money; the only drawback being that this is part of an elaborate scam which will part "posh druggies" and their parents from their money.

Questions of identity abound. Where in all this role-playing are the real people? And what about morality? On the second scam, she becomes troubled about her potential mark, a woman who "has yoga arms and doesn't look as if she's ever menstruated". To Evan, she's fair game, but Kerenza sees the human frailty, and comes to question her new-found source of affluence and, by extension, her whole existence.

A slick crime drama, Richards' Faustian fable also takes time to muse along with its heroine about the eternal mysteries: "The only constant being the human eye... the blinking jelly gazing through its uncertain window of time to try to make some sense of it."