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Last year's release of Christopher Fowler's "Full Dark House" brought his recurring characters, elderly police detectives Bryant and May, back to the forefront of his writing. With another four Bryant and May novels planned as his next releases, one of which is already available in hardback, and another due later this year, the thought took me back to their first novel in a "starring" role, the now twelve year old "Darkest Day".
Jerry Gates is from a successful London family. Much to their disgust, particularly her mother's, she has taken a job as a receptionist at London's Savoy Hotel. She's quite enjoying her job, until a guest collapses and dies in the middle of the lobby and then when another has his throat cut in the on site barbers salon. In between, the second mans brother throws acid over a painting in the Tate Gallery and then explodes on an Underground train.
It soon seems that someone has a vendetta against the Whitstable family, one of Londons most established business families. One by one, family members seem to be getting killed, regardless of anything Bryant and May can do about it. It seems no-one knows who is killing them and no-one can work out why. Even the family themselves cant, or wont, give the detectives any indication that may help them solve the crime, even to save themselves.
The basis of the story is a very interesting idea. While it may not be wildly original in generic terms, the specific parts are very nicely done. The murders themselves are frequently a nice touch and often quite novel and the reason behind the mystery, when it becomes known, is not something Ive ever seen elsewhere. Couple this with Fowlers love of the history of Londons history and a nice sideline into Gilbert and Sullivan and it makes the theory behind the novel quite enticing for any murder mystery fan.
Unfortunately, the execution isnt nearly as well done as the idea might suggest or deserve. Although there are some pretty interesting and gruesome murders and parts of the premise are pretty nasty, this ends up being pretty much a fairly straight detective story. As a result, there is a lot of back story and this seems to take up a lot of time, when the most interesting parts are watching the crime unfold. If the parts that werent part of the solution were twists or mis-directions, you might forgive the author for this, but most of them are merely background or feel like padding, which makes the story drag on for longer than it needs to and has the whole book feeling very slow paced. Indeed, its almost twice as long as most of his other work and it feels even longer than that at times.
Fowler has not worked to any of his strengths with Darkest Day. He has always been best at making the normal man look over their shoulder at what may be behind them by writing about things that could happen to them, but theres none of that here. While its set in a modern London that could be inhabited by many of us, the situation is pretty fantastic and you cant see any of these things happening to or around you. Again, this may not be a bad thing if the author can keep you distracted from the unreality of the situation by ensuring it sweeps you away, but the pace isnt high enough and the problem not tricky enough for this to be true.
Of all the Fowler novels I have read, it has been the two that feature Bryant and May most heavily that have been the most disappointing. If he is to write several more, I can only hope they are either far better than Darkest Day or interspersed with Fowler writing to his strengths. If this is to be the standard of them, I can see me going off Fowler in a major way.
If youre a fan of police thrillers, there are a lot better ones around. I can recommend Mark Billingham or Ian Rankins Inspector Rebus novels as better examples than Fowler. If youre a fan of horror, youd be far better placed reading Fowlers other work, which is far, far better than this. Id always recommend Fowler, but I cant recommend this, despite having seen copies available from £2.00 on eBay and even from £0.01 in the Amazon Marketplace. If youve discovered youre a big fan of Fowlers work, it may be worth a look for curiosity, but theres no other reason to read it.
I think that the authors own words about Darkest Day sum things up perfectly well. On his website, he says of the book I was unhappy with the result and you can see why.
When one of the guests at London's Savoy Hotel, where Jerry Gates works, dies in bizarre circumstances, she finds herself drawn into a nightmare world of blackmail, violence and ritual murder. She has stumbled into a conspiracy involving rare art, computers and a secret occult society.