Jim Kelly lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire, with his partner, the writer Midge Gillies, and their daughter. He is the author of the series starring journalist Philip Dryden. The Dryden series won the 2006 CWA Dagger in the Library award for a body of work giving ‘the greatest enjoyment to readers’
We're in the picture-postcard village of Shipcott on Exmoor, there's been a series of inexplicable murders - targeting the lonely and frail. The village bobby, Jonas Holly, is out-ranked by townie CID officers who flood the place and relegate him to standing on the doorstep of one of the victim's cottages to protect the crime scene.
This leaves Jonas fuming with frustration, not to mention humiliation, and when he starts getting anonymous notes wondering why the village needs a copper if he's no use in a murder inquiry, he sets out solo to trap the killer. The pace hots up when it seems the murderer may be heading for Holly's dying wife Lucy, trapped by MS in idyllic Rose Cottage. Then snow begins to fall. Just a little bit at first, but by the hectic climax we've got several feet of the stuff. What's not to like ?
Fans of Belinda Bauer's award-winning Blacklands will recognise the village and some of the characters in Darkside. Most of all they'll recognise the quality of the writing. The characterisation is worthy of a fine novel, which is what this promises to be. Jonas and Lucy's desperate relationship (she's already tried to kill herself as a cruel death approaches) is portrayed with great truth. The stars of the show, however, are the in-comers, DCI Marvel and DI Reynolds. Marvel is a hard-drinking gutsy copper who reminded me a lot of the non-PC DCI Gene Hunt in Life on Mars. Reynolds is the cerebral graduate who has to follow in his wake. In one scene Bauer goes inside both their heads to discover they have exactly the same secret love of model railways - something they will never share because they dislike each other so much. It's the kind of narrative flourish which just reeks of class. Bauer's treatment of Marvel made me laugh out loud several times. I particularly liked the economy in this: 'The mobile incident room arrived and it was shit. Just the way Marvel liked it.'
In fact as the novel progressed I got a bit itchy to be back with Marvel and his team and less in the company of the wholesome Jonas Holly. At one point I actually cheered in support of the abrasive DCI in one of his clashes with the introspective PC. "You think nobody kills their mother ? Or father ? Or their own kids ? What do you think this is - bloody Toytown ? Grow up, Holly, for fuck's sake."
For about 400 pages this book is pretty much crime thriller bliss. Bauer is such a good writer she can build up her characters with heart-rending backstories which never seem maudlin or cheap. She's not afraid to tackle big issues: her description of the moment when Lucy understands what death will be like, rather than dying, is a show stopper which made me read the page again. Most crime novels have one good 3D character in them - if we're lucky. This has at least three - if not more. And she can manipulate her characters like actors - creating drama, and pathos, and some genuinely tearful moments. The depth of the narrative successfully ensures Shipcott is never one of those stone hamlets in Heartbeat, or an ivy clad chocolate box image from Midsomer Murders. And the level of psychological tension is extraordinary - and surely Bauer's forte. I was reminded very strongly of Daphne du Mariuer in fact: Rebecca perhaps, with a dash of Jamaica Inn. Marvel's disintegration under stress, for example, is excellent. It is very clever, for example, to create an alcoholic who we rarely see with a drink in his hand. It's all hangover and desperation.
So to sum up - from Page One to Page 400 I enjoyed every word. It was a real curl up by the fire job.
Then I thought I spied the ending, and I thought, surely not ?(This precise moment reminded me of how I felt reading A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot. He has one of those endings you can see coming but you think it just can't be true. It can't be true ! No, really, it can't. But it is - and by the time you get there Japrisot has made it true.) The problem here is that Bauer can't really make it true. I don't care how good a writer she is. It just won't wash. You can tell it won't wash because she tries so hard to make it wash. The psychological, not to say psychiatric, cartwheels required for this denouement to be credible would have left Olga Korbutt flat on her back. It's a good job the first 400 pages are so classy. I'l buy the next one. I'm a mug like that.