In Darkness Visible by Tony Jones

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

Perhaps as a metaphor for this rather depressing story of evil and cruelty – and retribution, the book’s title references John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Milton describes how the devils are hurled from heaven to a fiery hell where there is no light but darkness visible.  Some of the characters in the book could readily be described as devils and well-deserving of their fate.

The book opens in 2005 in Croatia where our protagonist is playing chess with an old friend.  Carefully observing – and filming – him from the shadows is a woman; not a friend or lover but an agent tasked with finding Marin Katich and informing the authorities of his location.  He is a war criminal and soon finds himself in Scheveningen Prison in The Hague waiting his appearance before the International War Crimes Tribunal.  But, as in all good thrillers, not everything is as it seems and the true story is gradually revealed.

Across a number of locations and times including Sydney in 1970, Croatia in 1995, The Hague in 2005 and Sydney again in 2005, a clever cat-and-mouse game is played between Katich [one of his numerous names], Anna Rosen [his one-time lover], Pierre Villiers and Rachel Rosen.  There are other characters of course but they have their exits and entrances and nothing more is seen of them.  One or two storylines seem to fade out without any resolution.

Among the players are some historical figures who appear as themselves but whose roles in the book are ‘fictionalised’.  What is not fictionalised are the war crimes committed throughout the civil war in Yugoslavia and by both sides in the conflict.  These crimes, which are at times described in some detail, are confronting – and made more so by the apparent justification by the perpetrators of them as necessary and appropriate in the conflict.

Tony Jones the author is also a journalist and covered the civil war in Yugoslavia.  His first-hand observations add verisimilitude to the story but the downside of this is that on occasions the story reads more as journalism than a fictional thriller.  The catalogue of events which took place during the war does become a little tedious at times and distracts the reader from the more human [and humane] aspects of the book.

Additionally, there are very few characters who are actually likeable.  While it is not necessary of course for a novel’s characters to be consistently good people, it is necessary to have at least one or two with whom the reader can identify and care about.  Even Rachel who makes her appearance somewhat later in the novel shows a side of which is hardly one to be proud – even if her reasons for behaving the way she did was for a good purpose.  The end justifies the means?

The author is clearly well-read.  Not only is the title a nod to Milton, there are various other literary allusions scattered through the book including quotes from Hamlet and Macbeth,  a reference to a play by the French dramatist Jean Anouilh, one or two references to Bob Dylan including a rather bizarre allegation that he ‘had sold out’; and, on the lighter side – to Eric Clapton, Procol Harum, ABBA and even the television show Bewitched.  It is not clear to what purpose these allusions are made except perhaps the author showing off.

The author also cannot desist from qualifying almost every noun with an adjective.  For example, Rachel lives in a ‘luxury apartment’ with an ‘architect-designed wardrobe’; her car is a ‘black Audi’ and it exits the ‘underground carpark’ ‘fast and smooth’.  As Arlo Guthrie Jr once said ‘Nouns and verbs are the guts of the language.  Beware of covering up with adjectives and adverbs’.

For those readers who like thrillers – especially thrillers set in quasi-real situations – this book will be enjoyable and meet all the relevant criteria for a good read.  However, for this reader, it was not and did not.

In Darkness Visible

[2019]

by Tony Jones

Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 1 76029 501 1

467pp; $32.99

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