Written by Doug Magee – With so many writers seemingly content to meet genre expectations, it’s nice to come across an author not so easily satisfied. Magee isn’t just trying to write a suspenseful thriller here, but write about small town life and how claustrophobic that can be. That’s not all either. Darkness All Around about love – a mother’s love for her son, a wife’s love for her husband, and what she will do for both when they’re threatened. All good stuff of course, but it takes serious chops to pull that off and still meet those genre expectations.
The story takes place in Braden, Pennsylvania, a small town crazy for gridiron and where everyone, it seems, knows their neighbour’s business. On the surface Alan and Risa have it all. Alan is a successful local politician now running for Congress and Risa runs The Kitchen, the town’s diner and social hub. Risa’s son Kevin is the star of his high school football team. His real father, Sean, disappeared years ago but he’s accepted Alan into the family. But the veneer of normality is about to be stripped away.
Years before Sean, Risa, and Alan were high school friends who thought their friendship would never end. Sean, like Kevin after him, was a standout football talent, but turned his back on the game, put off by the casual violence and jock culture surrounding the game. Risa confounded local expectation by marrying Sean instead of solid and predictable Alan, but their happiness was short-lived. Sean’s father committed suicide and his drinking spiralled out of control. Spending more time in bars and fewer nights at home, he began staying with Carol, a friend who pitied him. Sean disappeared for good around the time of Carol’s brutal murder, but the police picked up G G, a simple man who confessed to the killing.
With Sean in New York, Alan and Risa got together. The turning point for Sean is when he falls in front of a train and receives a brain injury. On the one hand he receives treatment which brings his drinking under control, on the other he now has fragmented memories which convince him that he killed Carol. The guilt of this, on top of the shame he already feels, is too much. Sean returns to Braden to make amends.
Not everybody is keen to see justice done. There is a police department that will have to answer awkward questions about the confession of a vulnerable man, and a politician embroiled in a make or break campaign who cannot afford to have his image as a family man question. And, of course, if Sean is wrong, there may be a killer on the loose, ready to strike again.
Where I have criticisms about Darkness All Around, they are minor. Alan, the self-interested politician, is a slight caricature, and the killer’s identity is revealed in a hurried fashion in a way that cheats the reader somewhat.
Writing about ordinary people who find themselves and their loved ones in peril is fertile ground for crime authors like Harlan Coben. And like Coben, Magee manages to create central characters that are easy to empathise with, thus compounding the tension for the reader when these characters are in peril. Magee manages this with ease, and far from feeling frustrated with the domestic scenes, I found myself drawn in.
And what about the things we expect from a crime novel? They are met too. There is plenty of tension and atmosphere, and the pace is leisurely when appropriate and speeds up nicely toward the climax. This is a hugely enjoyable read.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
US readers can order the book here.