There can be few tropes – either using visual imagery or words – to match the allure of an disused and desolate lunatic asylum. The more Victorian and ‘Gothick’ the building is, the more it is likely to attract both those brave but foolhardy folk known as Urban Explorers – and writers of atmospheric thrillers. Place the building on a desolate island off the south western coast of Ireland and we have a dream – or nightmare – location for a murder mystery. Then let the tale be told by one of our finest modern writers of crime fiction and, as Wilkins Micawber once said, “Result, happiness.” Happiness at least for those of us who love a good read, but there is less joy for the characters in Jo Spain’s latest novel, The Darkest Place.
Dublin copper DI Tom Reynolds is summoned from the dubious delights of his family Christmas to solve a murder. Readers of the previous three Tom Reynolds books might think there is little remarkable about that, but this time the corpse has been in the ground for rather longer than usual. Forty years, in fact. On the island of Oileán na Caillte, the pathologists have been disinterring corpses from a mass grave of the unfortunates who passed away as patients of the long-defunct psychiatric institution, St Christina’s. Those involved in the grim task discover nothing illegal, as all the residents of the burial pit were laid to rest in body bags, tagged and entered onto the hospital records. With one exception. That exception is the corpse of one of St Christina’s medical staff Dr Conrad Howe, who mysteriously disappeared forty Christmases ago. No body bag or tag for Dr Howe, but a rather surreptitious last resting place wedged between two other corpses.
For Howe’s widow Miriam the discovery comes as a shock but a release of sorts. For all the Christmases in between she has, like a latter day Mrs Hailsham, laid out the seasonal trappings in the same way each year, half hoping that her husband would return. Her children, now grown up, have humoured her in this ritual up to a point, as has a doctor colleague of her husband’s, Andrew Collins, who retains his connection to Oileán na Caillte. The fact that Collins has been hopelessly in love with Miriam all this time is not lost on Reynolds as he tries to discover who killed Howe with – as tests on his bones reveal – a length of electrical flex which left copper traces on his thoracic vertebrae.
Reynolds is no-one’s fool. As he pores through the almost indecipherable scrawl of Howe’s diary (we share that task with him, but minus the scrawl) he realises that the truth about who killed the idealistic physician involves not only the dead of Oileán na Caillte, but those who are still very much alive. One of the most telling lines in the diary says:
“It is though we are sharing this island with the devil.”
Other than that dark angel, the cast of suspects includes another former physician, now himself just days away from death, and others whose culpability in the inhuman treatment of St Christina’s patients has left psychological scars, some of which have become dangerously infected. Of course, this being, among other things, a brilliant whodunnit, Jo Spain (right) allows Tom Reynolds – and us readers – to make one major assumption. She then takes great pleasure, the deviously scheming soul that she is, in waiting until the final few pages before turning that assumption not so much on its head as making it do a bloody great cartwheel.
Jo Spain is a brilliant writer. It really is as simple as that. She takes the humble police procedural and not only breathes new life into it, but makes it dance and jitterbug like a flapper on cocaine. Not content with that, she shifts a heavy old stone covering some of the less palatable aspects of her country’s history, and lets us gaze squeamishly at some of the nasty things that click and scuttle about beneath, disturbed by exposure to the light.
The previous Tom Reynolds novel was Sleeping Beauties, and you can check that out by clicking the blue link. Do the same to see the review of her brilliant standalone novel The Confession. The Darkest Place is published by Quercus and will be available on 20th September.