by Bill Kirton
320 pages. YouWriteOn.
Review by Kate Kasserman
We all know the difference between right and wrong (begging the brief indulgence of any psychopaths who might be reading), and we all know that there is a large, gray demilitarized zone between the two, a demilitarized zone that might arguably contain the vast bulk of human experience and endeavor. People are a mixed bag, after all, even the nicest ones. No one is devoid of some desire for power, however well-intentioned or modest (and violence is ultimately about power).
Part of the enduring appeal of crime and thriller fiction is that it gives us a no-fault reason, at least vicariously, to slip off the leash. An excuse, an excuse! A golden ticket into the DMZ! (Best. Wonka Bar. EVER.) Someone else started it! There’s a murder – a crime – a something or other that obliges us to beat our plowshares into swords and march into the muck, but only because we must defend the right and the innocent and the true.
The usual format of a crime/thriller drenches us in reasons why the protagonist is stuck holding the bag for this delicious, poisonous social correction. The authorities don’t care – or the hero has a damning secret – or the victim does – and so on, etc. The Darkness is a chilling exception to that rule. Two original crimes (a recent hit-and-run that kills a woman and her young daughters, and a years-old rape) propel the main events of the story, and Scottish (well, he’s English, but he works in Scotland) DCI Jack Carston would’ve given his right arm to solve both of them. So would his bosses. (They’d’ve given Carston’s right arm, anyway – at any rate, they certainly aren’t in the way.)
Actually, Carston did solve them. He knows very well who’s guilty of each. It’s just not enough, and not the proper kind of, evidence to hold up in a court of law. Whether we wear badges or not, we can’t go gadding about with Rule of Mob and cutting off the tongues and ears of people we “just know” are guilty. In principle, this is clear enough, and laudable: better a guilty man go free than an innocent man be hanged. Just typing it makes me feel clean, even without brushing my teeth.
Except – what would it feel like to be one of the wounded abandoned in the aftermath of one of these unpunished crimes? A small wobble in the broader balance of society, a cost we consider cheap in terms of the value it provides, can be a violent convulsion on the scale of individual human souls.
It can destroy them.
This is the infinitely queasy territory that The Darkness mines. It isn’t about the hit-and-run or the rape. These original crimes are like pinprick holes in a pair of stockings. The holes weren’t darned. The stockings are going to run. And the book follows the unraveling with a careful psychological precision that hits the (very) tricky balance between dispassionate honesty about and sympathy for basically good people squashed by cruel circumstances.
Three characters show us three ways to unravel. Andrew Davidson was bereaved twice by the hit-and-run. The first victims were his sister-in-law and nieces; the next victim was his brother, who collapsed beneath the loss of his wife and daughters and committed suicide. I am not spoiling anything in the plot by revealing that Davidson goes unhinged by deciding to take matters into his own hands and punish not just the hit-and-run driver but several other perps who are walking around free as the wind. He goes cowboy on us, and he provides the crimes that start the story running. Several crimes in fact, including a murder plot (Davidson prefers to – well, torture, basically, chaining his victims up in his lightless basement – but whom he cannot get his hands upon to torture he decides he must simply eliminate) of remarkable deviousness. His vigilante work mires him increasingly as his “civilian” life is taking a turn for the better with a new love, just to salt the wound.
Rhona Kirk is the rape victim, and her response to being pistol-whipped by unpunished crime was: roll with it. She disengaged emotionally and became a prostitute. She’s good at her work; being numb lets her be cold, but the core of decency remains – she doesn’t try to wreck lives, she just tries to do a good job within the strictly defined boundaries of her profession. Since she cultivates regulars as a business practice, she hears plenty of “I love you, come away with me”s, which she dismisses – up until the point where it is noticed that someone who mistreated her has gone missing (while a single missing person here or there might be shrugged off, Davidson’s predations are broad enough to have established a bit of concern about AWOL SOBs), and she discovers for the first time in years that she really does need, and want, a friend.
Jack Carston deals with the messiness of the world because he has to. What manages to punch through his professional boundaries is Davidson’s string of threats and kidnappings – because Carston really, REALLY has a hard time putting his heart into it when part of him is singing HALLELUJAH at the perfectly delightful choice of victims. I was with Carston here. It’s easier for me to admit, because I can take refuge in everything being a story. But when the pedophile, for example, was on the docket to be snatched, I…wanted Davidson to get away with it. (For all that the book does not actually tell us for certain whether ALL the presumed guilty are in fact guilty – so I got to experience the creepy ambiguousness of my own reaction.)
It’s Carston’s job to protect the legally innocent, and Davidson’s prey fall into this category, no matter what they may or may not have done. That’s Carston’s burden. Can he do his job impartially when, as a personal matter, he’d just as soon Davidson got away with it?
Obviously, the reader knows what Davidson is up to – we spent a lot of time in Davidson’s head. We don’t know how the Kirk-related disappearance(s) factor in, but all is revealed (that would be a spoiler, so I’m not telling). On the surface, a lot of the tension in the book is watching Davidson (will he or won’t he?) try to bag each of his victims. But the real pressure is in watching each of these three characters (and several secondary ones) struggle with which side of the line they’re going to come down on. Davidson and Kirk have the chance for something better. Carston has the chance for something worse.
By the book’s end, we get our answers. As in life, it was a mix – some of it was what I hoped for, and some of it was not. But all of it, good and bad alike, rang true. Though it was a bit like standing right NEXT to the ringing bell, because it rattled my innards. But in a crime story, justice must be served: and indeed it is. How much of it is right or fair, you’re left to decide.