Dark Heart by James Phelan

9780733636127

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

“Not another thriller!” you groan as you pick up the latest James Phelan novel. There is substance in such a reaction to ‘thrillers’ these days. Contemporary audiences are so wedded to the short and snappy episodes we watch on television that the thought of reading a full length book is the province of the shrinking minority. To combat the drift away from books as traditionalists know them writers have to come up with strategies of their own.

One way is the most obvious of all: use the agreed conventions of human psychology to attract the potential readers. The writer, James Phelan, has gone for a wholly visual stimulus, a very high quality cover in rich golds and browns serving as a backdrop to the typographer’s art. The script and the colours join with the background to make a succinct and forceful statement. Their job is to persuade the reader that Phelan has a high quality product, and that they are going to want to pick up the book and open the cover. The tones selected for the cover are no accident. We are told that the story begins in the desert wastelands of Syria.

We now come to the meat of the story. It must match up to the quality of the cover. The novelist must play fair with his readers since his cover has raised reader expectations. Phelan’s tale begins with a lone massacre survivor who is buried under the dead bodies of others.  “Then one of the bodies shifted. Slid right off…  And then another…She could breathe, and see, and hear, and move…And then a face above her…looked her in the eyes as he spoke. Find Jed Walker” (3).

A real treat here. Not only a mysterious message delivered by a mysterious stranger but a writing style that delivers short sharp bursts not unlike those of an AK-47.

A switch in scene to a hospital where agent Krycek is interrogating a young woman in an intensive care unit. The author leaves his readers in no doubt about the man’s size, using that and his overbearing manner as indicators that he is a villain. Non-verbal signalling plays a large part in this story.

The reader is then transported to another hospital in another city where the now unburied young woman accosts Jed Walker as he attempts to leave hospital. The action continues from here, written once more in the staccato, telegraphic style we’re beginning to become accustomed to. At this stage a new element intrudes which is sure to divide readers into two camps as they grapple with it. Because it is such an important narrative technique I propose to clarify what happens in the plot here, and throughout the book.

Hassan used his left hand to grip the edge of the door and started to push it closed. The way he moved, the way his body was pivoting across as though his right shoulder was moving backward, told Walker that his right hand was reaching for something on his right hip or behind his back to the right.

Which told Walker: pistol.

A 9-millimetre of some kind…two seconds, if Hassan was good. Three seconds if he wasn’t…If it was a Glock, with its two-stage trigger safety system, then the time could be closer to one second from drawing to pulling three-point-five pounds of pressure to bear on the trigger and blasting through the door.

So, Walker gave himself a second” (68-69).

Readers may become addicts to this style of writing – pithy, logical reasoning involving space and time concerns, almost a recipe book delivery, or else they hate it because it takes attention away from the storyline.

I love it and would recommend the book on the basis of an exciting writing style alone. But there is still that storyline. Here is the chaff surrounding the wheat, the husk without the kernel. I would have to judge that the plot has a focus, a reason for existence, but it is commonplace. Having said that, it’s very difficult to write an original story in the ‘thriller’ medium, and this one does not suffer much from being ‘old hat’. When your delivery is striking and the settings authentic, when the characters are credible and interesting, you have a readable book on your hands.

I love the freshness of this book and hope to read more by James Phelan in the months ahead.

Dark Heart

(2016) by James Phelan

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 978-0-7336-3612-7

347pp; $29.99

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