Book review: Darkness Falls by David Mark

Darkness Falls – David Mark

‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ tends to be an excuse made by apologists for the right to bear arms, but having a gun certainly gives people more options for killing, particularly when it falls into the wrong hands. Take Owen Lee, a hard-bitten journalist (aren’t they all?) based in Hull in David Mark’s latest DS McAvoy thriller. Journalists might hold long grudges and undoubtedly have very good reasons to hold them but they don’t go around killing people who might have upset them or screwed them over, particularly not journalists in Hull. Imagine they had unexpected access to a gun though; would they behave any differently?

Well, the answer is no, probably not. If that was the case then Darkness Falls wouldn’t have much potential as a crime thriller but maybe there are other reasons why Owen Lee might resort to violence, and if there is a valid reason you can be sure that David Mark will probe every dark corner of the human psyche to find it. Maybe if Owen Lee was already as good as dead, would that make any difference? It might go some way to explaining the murderous mayhem that follows, but you can be sure that there’s probably more to it than that.

As if it wasn’t bad enough having to report on some particularly nasty crimes like the brutal murder of Ella Butterworth by a known and particularly sick sex offender, Owen Lee has experienced some personal tragedies and is about to take his own life. In the woods however he stumbles across an incident between two drug dealers and, with nothing to lose except letting someone else take away his choice of when and how to end his life, he responds violently to the threat and comes into possession of drugs, money and a gun. A gun with six bullets. With murder on his mind and nothing left to lose, Owen considers six ways he can make good use of them. Only six?

This new lease of life doesn’t distract Lee from his deeper journalistic instincts, particularly as Shane Cadbury is currently on trial for the murder of Ella Butterworth, one of the worst crimes Hull has ever known. Detective Superintendent Doug Roper is concerned however that the trial is in danger of being derailed and that Cadbury could be released. Jaded to a large extent from a long career covering petty criminality, this one actually matters to Owen Lee. He is determined to do what he can to ensure that Cadbury pays for his crime and might very well take the law into his own hands. And not by writing a strongly worded newspaper article either. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but when you are in possession of a gleaming gun, well let’s not worry about semantics; either the gun or the person holding it is going to take down Ella Butterworth’s killer. And one or two others.

In case you’ve forgotten – or think I’ve forgotten – this is however one of David Mark’s DS McAvoy books and while he is less prominent in favour of the first person perspective of Owen Lee, McAvoy certainly doesn’t take a back seat. Let’s not forget that there’s a body or two in the woods waiting to be discovered and apparently a lot of threads to be connected, and that’s something that Mark specialises in. So too does characterisation, but any regular reader of the DS McAvoy cases will already know all about the 6′ 6″ lump of an awkward and sensitive soul that is Aector McAvoy, his diminutive wife of Irish Traveller origin, Roisin, and his colleague and boss the formidable Trish Pharaoh.

If you haven’t had the pleasure, well then Darkness Falls is a good introduction because David Mark has stepped back a little to 2012 when Aector and Roisin are only 3 years married, McAvoy has only recently been transferred to Hull and he has yet to be formally introduced to Pharaoh, so this is like a prequel. And if like me you were finding it a bit difficult to keep up with the internal politics and corrupt hierarchy of the Humberside police force in the last but one DS McAvoy book (Scorched Earth) this prequel is a welcome refresher. Not least because we also have the pleasure – a very dubious pleasure this one – of seeing just how ruthless Doug Roper could be just when we thought we had seen the last of him in Scorched Earth.

Doug Roper is far from the only nasty piece of work in Darkness Falls, and even at this early stage in McAvoy’s career, there’s no let up from the grim realities of dealing with the particular type of crime that takes place in this part of the world. David Mark doesn’t just write by-the-numbers crime thrillers, there’s always a very distinct local character that he hones in on in his writing, one that takes into account to the specific geographical, social and economic issues that lie at the roots of crime in the UK. In an international port city like Hull, that can have far-reaching and violent implications historically and in the present climate. That darkness is already very much there in the 2012 prequel setting of Darkness Falls, but as grim as the violence gets – and there are some horrible crime scenes described here – it’s somewhat lightened by Mark’s sense of humour and irreverence, or perhaps just coloured a different shade of dark this time by the journalistic observations on the criminal justice system by Owen Lee.

On the other hand, as a balance to this potentially overwhelming bleak outlook, you have DS Aector McAvoy. There is no cynicism there whatsoever, the young detective painfully and even naively preoccupied with doing the right thing, the decent thing, believing wholeheartedly in the goodness of people and in fairness in the justice system. McAvoy is completely like any other detective in this regard. He’s probably the polar opposite of Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne, who might be equally well-meaning and determined to see justice done, but experienced enough to know how things work and that sometimes you have to cross lines. That’s not McAvoy’s way.

Pitting that kind of pureness against some incredibly dark characters and evil actions creates quite a contrast and David Mark explores all the subtle gradations of character, belief and doubt that lie in between with his usual cast of wonderfully drawn and completely human characters. It’s all held together with authentic and humorous dialogue, original descriptions and grimly poetic observations, providing a deep insight not just into police and the justice system, crime and criminals, but into the nature of people. And what people do when they have a gun and nothing left to lose.

Be under no illusions, but there’s not much danger of that. Everyone in Darkness Falls is stripped bare of any kind of sentimentality, the author getting to the true nature of drug dealers and gangsters evidently, but also the police, journalists and ordinary people are exposed here as having vicious, nasty, greedy, arrogant, and self-absorbed sides that can come out under pressure. There’s a dark core at the heart of English society and individuals that is sadly tolerated and excused, but Mark isn’t afraid to expose it for all its ugliness as well as question where it might come from.

It could all be too much, too bleak and too violent but for one redeeming feature and that’s DS McAvoy. Even he is almost buried under the weight of this one, still naive and lacking confidence at this early stage in his career, but it’s character building. And knowing what comes after, that’s going to serve him well, if not exactly spare him from even bleaker and more violent assignments.


Updated: Jun 06, 2020

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