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The Price of Darkness is the ninth in a series of police procedural novels by Graham Hurley. Although I've not read any of the preceding books, I was easily able to pick up the thread of this chronicle of South Coast crime. I have to declare first of all that I am not a particular fan of police procedural novels, in fact I'm always a little mystified as to why anyone would want to read one.
Moving along at a leisurely pace, the novel comprises two main strands: the investigation of the murder of a property developer, and the adventures of Paul Winter, a former copper who's now working for Portsmouth's biggest criminal family.
Yes, Portsmouth. Although the action moves to London and Spain at various points, the bulk of the novel is centred around the Solent. Rather than just being a generic urban backdrop, Portsmouth's identity is central to the book. The city's recent regeneration, its naval traditions, and the fierce rivalry with neighbouring Southampton, all these elements bleed through into the plot. Hurley really couldn't have set the book anywhere else.
I grew up around this area, and it was great to see it being so faithfully described, warts and all. Southampton and the New Forest also get frequent references.
The personal highlight for me was the dialogue. Bazza, a criminal boss trying to create a sporting legacy for his dead brother, constantly and aggressively calls people 'mush', a term which is 100% Hampshire. I've never heard anyone use the word with a straight face since I left the area, and it was brilliant to see it there.
This being a novel dealing with criminals and stressed policemen, there's also a fair amount of swearing, although never quite enough that it feels gratuitous. Even the French phrases dropped into the conversations between DI Faraday and his girlfriend didn't feel forced (there's nothing worse than a paragraph of speech followed by Monsieur - it really doesn't fool anyone).
It is a shame then that there's so much reported speech in the novel - but this is mostly in exposition scenes, and I assume any real police investigation contains a large amount of people sitting around recapping things they already know. Reported speech lacks immediacy to me, and it always jerked me out of Hurley's story. It helped avoid repetitious scenes and summarises dull dialogue, but at the cost of this reader's total immersion.
The characters were great, the detectives are a flawed but sympathetic bunch. I particularly loved Faraday, with his fondness for birdwatching. It was a nice plausible hobby for a detective, and signposts his acute observation skills relatively subtly. Paul Winter is less sympathetic, and seems to spend most of the novel slouching around swearing at people - whether it's his new employers or his former colleagues in the Force. Eventually his sulkiness breaks down, though.
On the character front, it is worth remembering that this is part of an ongoing series, so there are various references to events in the characters' past that are presumably chronicled in earlier novels. These are deftly handled, however, and gave a sense of a real shared history to the cast.
In terms of the storyline, the book's structurally sound. The second corpse pops up more or less bang on schedule, and there are no obvious leaps of logic or flashes of insight - the crime is solved by a lot of hard slog. Door-to-door interviews, scanning CCTV footage, going through bank records... to depict this kind of thing while stopping the story from becoming utterly boring is impressive. The whodunnit is far less important than the howdunnit, although the chief suspect's calm performance in the interview room was another highlight for me.
The only thing that really rankled with me was the social commentary that runs throughout about society having 'lost its way'. It's understandable that policemen start to question human nature, they see a lot of unpleasantness. But there's more than a few situations that suggest the narrator believes society has gone wrong by letting Johnny Foreigner into the country. The book's final act invites the reader to identify firmly with a Portsmouth crime boss with a history of football hooliganism, drug trafficking and extreme violence as he squares up to an impudent East European gangster. Bazza might be a criminal, but at least he's our criminal? It left an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
Other than that, The Price of Darkness is an extremely readable tale with solid characters, a surprisingly engrossing plot and the word 'mush'. You can buy the novel for around £8.99 and it is currently available in all good bookshops and online. Hurrah!
This is an amended version of a review which first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk