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by Sarah Hilary
Penguin, August 2015
416 pages
ISBN: 0143126199

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Sarah Hilary's debut, SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN, was greeted warmly when it appeared last year and went on to win Theakston's Crime Novel of the Year award. When a first novel does that well, readers are always a bit anxious to see whether the author can live up to the achievement of the first or will succumb to the notorious sophomore jinx. In this case, happily, they need not have worried. NO OTHER DARKNESS succeeds very well indeed.

The book follows the protagonist of the first, DI Marnie Rome, who has had an excellent career on the police force and been generally successful in keeping her own personal tragedy from impacting on her work. Five years ago, Marnie's parents were killed by the teenager they were fostering, an act both incomprehensible and never explained, not even by the killer to himself.

Now she is confronted by a crime that will come to exhibit some eerie similarities to that act. A householder, Terry Doyle, has discovered the decomposed bodies of two small children, spooned in a final embrace, in a previously unknown underground bunker behind his house. The investigation reveals that they died, presumably of starvation or perhaps despair, about five years previously. They could not have simply wandered into the bunker and got lost - someone put them there - and who and why remains to be discovered.

Terry Doyle, who is widely liked in the neighbourhood and seen as a devoted family man, is not content with being the father of two and of a prospective third. He is also fostering fourteen-year-old Clancy Brand, a boy who has been more or less abandoned by his well-off parents and excluded from several schools. He is a very angry lad and reminds Marnie of the foster child who killed her parents. The emotions stirred up by the sad end of the small children and the memory stirred by Clancy unsettles Marnie to the point that she has difficulty doing her job. She manages, but at an emotional cost that worries her sergeant Noah Jake.

Stripped to its bones like this, NO OTHER DARKNESS might seem all too familiar. The damaged DI struggling to remain operational while having to cope with the worst that modern urban society can throw her way. The subordinate who tries his best to protect his boss. These are the familiar tropes of the contemporary police procedural, which often shifts attention from the minutiae of crime solving to the psychological condition of the officer. But Hilary brings much that is fresh to the enterprise.

First of all, there is a thoroughgoing shifting of traditional gender roles at work. This not merely a matter of a woman in charge of a major crime investigation, but an underlying assumption that runs throughout.

Noah may feel protective of Marnie, but she returns the concern, respectful of her sergeant's sensitivities. The various female characters are variously pleasant and unpleasant, competent and not, guilty and complicit. The male characters display a similar range of strengths and weaknesses. What all have in common is a commitment to an idea of family, something that may lead to bizarre and dangerous, even evil, behaviour, but which may also be the most human thing about them all.

Hilary also has a lovely touch with language. Her descriptions are both meticulous and vivid. From time to time a startling metaphor will sparkle on the page. It's a talent that gives both urgency and depth to the proceedings and ensures the reader's engagement with the unfolding complex plot.

With this second novel, Sarah Hilary gives every indication that she is well on the road to establishing herself as a major crime fiction talent.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2015

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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