The Darkroom by Jonathan Moore

The Dark Room TPB_BLK.indd

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Having received a dying man’s confession directing him to a grave-site, Inspector Gavin Cain receives a phone call from his boss to tell him he has been reassigned. A helicopter arrives and Cain finds himself fronting the mayor of San Francisco who has received photographs of a woman he claims he does not know, together with a threatening note. So begins a tautly paced thriller whose plot hinges on police procedurals. Moore adds to the brew by having Cain use his experience and intelligent reading of the situations that face him to find the solution to ghastly murders reaching back thirty years.

Jonathan Moore’s writing has drawn comparisons with that of Michael Connelly, whose hard-nosed Harry Bosch crime series has made him well known among readers of crime novels. There is a strong hint of Connelly in Moore’s writing but it is still only a hint. Moore is very much his own man. He has the ability to take his reader through the routine world of the homicide cop, and then break routine with a startling change (perhaps another murder or the destruction of a member of his team) that has the reader asking questions. ‘What happened there? Surely not! Not her?’ These abrupt changes of circumstances are never telegraphed in the writing. They come out of next to nothing. Blasted out of a comfortable armchair read, this reviewer had to re-group while watching Cain’s team refocus.

To produce this effect and make it appear random requires considerable expertise in planning. Moore does this without the reader becoming aware that the alternatives to what happened have been steadily closed off. The writer may feel he needs to show his villain as bloodthirsty, possessing no feeling of empathy towards his fellow creatures, a killer abandoned by every scrap of decency he might have once held. Something very serious has to happen — the execution of Cain’s fiancée, the murder of a mayor, the slaughter of two of Cain’s detectives…any of those things. One thing that becomes obvious is the care with which Moore builds the ground work so that an action is a logical consequence of that preliminary work. He is then in a strong position to execute his initiatives.

The settings are day-to-day urban but with a twist. Every large city has a graveyard, a morgue, mansions of the rich, and ramshackle houses of the poor. In the coffin being unearthed in the graveyard something unusual is found. When Cain calls on a young female artist, in her studio, home or in the street, she invariably steps naked from a shift and he without so much as a catch in his voice politely refuses her advances. Also unusual is a frantic race against time when Cain, blocked by a broken down truck, careers along a footpath with sobering results for his vehicle. The city might look like a regularly functioning city but there is always something to set it apart.

Some of Moore’s characters are finely drawn, some are not. I can picture his diminutive girlfriend, although her decision to wear a long, formal gown but no shoes when she gave a public piano recital threw me a bit. But strangely, I cannot picture Cain. The reader can draw conclusions about him from his actions throughout the plot, but cannot bring his image to mind. If that same reader goes back into the story looking for a precise description, his efforts will be unrewarded. We know that he is trustworthy and true because his actions are directed toward problem solving for the benefit of the law-abiding people in the book. Two of his fellow police are murdered, and although we have followed the clues with them, we are left with no clear picture of them following their deaths. Grassley’s soft hands stick in our minds because our attention was drawn to this feature. We make the assumption that FBI agent Fischer will fall in love with Cain and become a little peeved when her boyfriend is introduced as a chef.

Moore has this ability to cause his readers to make assumptions, thus making it very difficult for them to guess who the murderer might be. At the same time that he is busily leading his readers along, Moore is also providing stereotyped characters who behave precisely as one would expect, but because of the melting pot they are in we are not prepared to accept that they are the boring people they’re meant to be. Mona Castelli is one such person. Her daughter is a hyperactive character who engages our attention to the extent that we find it impossible to switch quickly from her high power antics. Mona is so much less interesting simply because she is comfortable with being rich, drunk and normal.

I found this a fascinating, well thought through story, a tour-de-force of intelligent plotting. Certainly worth a read.

The Darkroom


By Jonathan Moore
Orion Books/Hachette
ISBN: 978-1-4091-6503-3
$AU29.99; 296pp


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