Schoolgirl model Jessica Cole lives with her private investigator father in London- she often (secretly) helps him out by planting bugs and indulging in a bit of part-time surveillance between modelling and school work. When her dad disappears in France on the trail of a missing nanotechnician, Jessica has no choice but to use her emergency code red protocol- putting her in touch, much to her surprise, with her dad’s ex colleagues at MI6, Nathan and Margaret. Giving her overbearing Chanel suited Grandma Matie the slip, she’s on the next Eurostar out of London.
Ostensibly off to Paris to take part in some glittering (not to mention convenient) fashion shows for Paris Couture Week, Jessica seizes the opportunity to ditch her handlers and investigate the last known movements of her dad as he hunted for missing Sam Bishop. Warned off by Nathan and Margaret but doing it anyway, Jessica’s off-the-record investigation lands her in a lot of trouble at MI6, but they realise that having an unsuspicious fashion personality on the inside might not be such a bad idea. Jessica is tasked with infiltrating the business empire of Allegra Knight, an ageing ex supermodel that plans to launch a miracle face cream for teens that is not what it seems…only this time Jessica is a legitimate MI6 operative and has the gadgets for the task.
I enjoyed the first book as a fun, fashion filled spy caper, but the quality of the narrative and the characterisation definitely get better as the series goes on- alone in Paris on an ever cooling trail is one thing, but a black ops mission as an undercover bodyguard for the daughter of a shady Russian oligarch is another thing entirely. The second book, Fashion Assassin, which I enjoyed more than the first, is set on a luxury yacht in Monaco. Jessica and Kat the brat, whom she is tasked with protecting, are modelling together at an exclusive fashion event that MI6 suspect might be a smokescreen for an arms deal of some kind. The second book reveals another side to Jessica, a sneaky, stealth operative that takes initiative, follows hunches and methodically investigates every clue, idea and lead. It seems that when MI6 give her something to do instead of stopping her from doing it, Jessica makes quite the spook…Snooping and gathering information makes for a much sturdier plot and a more thrilling finale than searching for her father (no offence papa Cole). I found the second book had a more intense pace, was more tightly plotted and had much more at stake for Jessica and her career(s). I felt like I really got to know Jessica during this second book. The spy work became the focus with the modelling as cover, rather than the modelling being an opportunity to spy, as it becomes clear to the reader where Jessica’s true priorities lie.
I really liked how the second book emphasised the empty wealth of Kat and her billionaire father. Money is no object to them, but their relationship is patchy. Splurging thousands on clothes and jewels then throwing it away, Kat is everything that Jessica hates about the fashion industry. She contrasts hugely with Jessica, who has been blackmailed into this job due to her family’s financial situation- her dad has MS so goes long periods without working and racks up costly medical bills. Jessica really shows her integrity in this book, and her unshakeable moral compass.
The third book, Catwalk Criminal, sees Jessica framed for huge, national cyber-crimes and as a result, thrown out of MI6 pending criminal investigations, and on a slightly less severe note, thrown out of school. Undeterred as ever, she sets out to clear her name with the assistance of super-hot male model Zak. Delving into the criminal depths of the fashion industry, and unearthing some future technology that seems highly desirable to armies, Jessica’s sources and hunches lead her back to old advisories and new and unlikely suspects. This instalment also sees her double life beginning to take its toll on her personal life, as best friend Becky and boyfriend Jamie find themselves first neglected socially, then in the firing line of Jessica’s persistently slippery nemesis.
I really liked Jessica as a character, she’s feisty and independent, so you root for her whatever she’s doing, she’s resourceful and determined and she appears to have (so far) stayed quite normal, for somebody who is a burgeoning celebrity, a secret agent and a daughter of a murdered spy. I felt we as readers get to know her better though when she is paired with another character. Kat and Zak revealed Jessica’s character really well I thought- we get to see her own her ideas and defend her (correct) hunches. She gets to prove that she’s not just a flukey agent or a pretty face- she gets to make mistakes and learn from them, as well as take responsibility for other people. The series turns on its head the idea that all people working in the fashion industry are shallow mercenaries that would stab you in the back before casually applying a slick of lipgloss. Although there are definitely people out there who match that description.
Each of the three books is full of twists and turns as Jessica and her varying allies close in on their targets. Towards the end the reader reels from shocking reveals about inside jobs, double agents, betrayals and secret identities. It’s hard to say which area is most well stocked with dodgy characters and murky with treachery and deceit; the fashion industry, the criminal underworld or the intelligence service. Each instalment of the series has a complete narrative, but together they assemble pieces of a larger mystery- what happened the day 10 years ago when Jessica’s mother Lily, also a Model Spy was killed in a helicopter crash? A helicopter crash that doesn't, in light of emerging information, look as accidental as it appeared at the time. Jessica’s whole reason for joining MI6 is to get to the bottom of it and to bring those responsible to justice.
As much as I enjoyed the series so far, there was one thing that bugged me throughout. The descriptions of all the gowns, bags and accessories became a little tiresome, dropping designer name after designer name. Though I must say that these get less frequent towards the third book. For somebody profoundly uninterested in fashion, knowing something was an evening bag was good enough for me- the fact that it was cream, beaded, Victoria Beckham/Stella McCartney/Burberry creation doesn't really inflame my interest or even help me to visualise this item! I wouldn't know a Jimmy Choo from New Look £8 special and couldn't identify a Liberty scarf if it was knotted around my own neck. Fashion Fans are going to get much more out of the whirlwind of labels than I ever could!
If you’re looking for a UK equivalent to Gallagher Girls or something a bit more grown up than Ruby Redfort, then the Jessica Cole series would be well worth a look. It's not hard to imagine Jessica and Alex Rider teaming up for a mission or two either, if you're a fan of the Rider series. Readers who enjoyed the catwalk escapades of Harriet Manners in Geek Girl will like this too, only there’s the added bonus of gadgets and explosions with Jessica.