Book review: The Darkest Place by Jo Spain

the darkest place jo spainI loved Jo Spain’s The Confession and was looking forward to reading this, but it hasn’t moved me in the same way.

The Darkest Place is the fourth in the police procedural series featuring DCI Tom Reynolds. As he is celebrating Christmas he is called on by his much-despised senior officer to investigate a cold case. A doctor went missing from a psychiatric hospital on a remote island off the Irish coast 40 years ago. His wife never gave up hope but now a body has been found.

Tom and his colleagues hotfoot it to the island where they discover a sinister setting and a lot of moody silence from the few remaining island dwellers, most of whom worked at the hospital until its closure some years earlier. He is also armed with a diary which the doctor’s wife found among her husband’s possessions.

It’s a great premise, and, like The Confession, should provide a gateway to explore an important element of recent Irish history – in this case the mass incarceration of people who deviated from social norms in ways which had nothing to do with mental health. However it never really comes to life for me.

There are no flashbacks giving us the story of the asylum so everything we know comes from either the witnesses (who are reluctant to talk, for a variety of reasons) and the diary. We get glimpses of the cruelty of the regime, and of some of the people locked up unjustly (pregnant girls, homosexuals and one man apparently incarcerated just because he was in a financial dispute with a powerful landowner). However the diary is written in a fairly clinical, prosaic style which didn’t bring the characters to life. It also (conveniently) documents everything except the name of the perpetrator!

The police characters felt a little bland to me after the pleasingly abrasive cast of The Confession. Tom is a steady, nice guy, a family man who loves to be around his granddaughter, while his junior officers are hardworking but, apart from learning that two of them are in a relationship, they had no distinguishing features for me. Perhaps this makes them – that dreaded word – relatable, but they left me cold. It may be that, some way into the series, the author has glossed over characterisation, because the characters are so familiar to her she doesn’t think she needs to explain them again.

As well as the couple in a relationship, there are two colleagues of Tom’s who are estranged and with a complicated backstory. Tom is quite happy to jump in with comments on both relationships, making the whole thing feel like they are still in high school.

Personally, I would have liked more on the conflicting beliefs and values of the hospital staff. Were the practices there undertaken by people who were sincere but misguided or just cruel? What was the motivation of those who went along with them? Having worked in institutional settings, I know how groupthink takes hold. In a remote and economically deprived area, the pressure would have been even greater. Was the hospital an anomaly or part of a structure that was maintained with the support of church and state? All this is hinted at but not fully explored.

The setting on the island is atmospheric. Things go bump in the night, the islanders all have strange secrets, there is a clever twist at the end. But I didn’t feel immersed in the story or that I’d rush to read another in this series.

I received a copy of The Darkest Place from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Darkest Place on Goodreads

Try instead – For another book that deals with the troubled recent past, take a look at my review of The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney



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