Book review: Still Waters by David Mark
Still Waters - David Mark
Seemingly unable to pace his writing to the requirements of a regular publisher's schedule, it looks like David Mark has turned to other publishers and self-publishing in order to keep getting his books out there. By my reckoning, aside from the long running DS Aector McAvoy series (ninth book just published after Cold Bones, which I will definitely be getting to asap) and the occasional standalone book (A Rush of Blood), Mark now has two other series running; Blood Money, the first of a Nicolas Roe series that has just been published, and with Still Waters we have the beginning of a Lakeland Trilogy. And his output isn't confined to just that.
But let's focus on the book in hand, Still Waters. The first of Mark's independently published Lakeland Trilogy is based around Rowan Blake, a former journalist turned writer of a commercially failed but critically acclaimed true-crime investigative work. While he has the charm to get some people to open up to him with candid opinions and information, it seems that Blake also has a way of upsetting others. After an unfortunate accident caused by a disgruntled reader his hands are currently burned and out of action, so he has been forced to retire to his sister's cottage in the Lake District to convalesce and think about the contractual follow up book that his publisher is demanding, which is now late and which he has no material for at all.
Evidently there is a small but close community in the area and through his sister Serendipity and her 12 year old daughter Snowdrop, he hears about acquaintances of theirs who have some strange history with an old boarding school in the area. Silver Birch had a reputation for 'alternative teaching methods', although 'teaching' is too conventional word for them and they probably wouldn't be keen on the word 'alternative'. They probably wouldn't be too fussed about being called 'hippy' either but in the seventies this seems like an accurate description as they occasionally call on the services of Mr Sixpence, who lives in the nearby woods and looks like a druid or Gandalf. He used to be a psychiatrist but has moved into other areas of Reiki, Shamanism and yoga to help children with problems, apparently with no sinister motives.
Well, it wouldn't really be a David Mark book if there was nothing at all sinister about this, and indeed Rowan hears an intriguing story about three teenage girls from Silver Birch who disappeared in the woods 30 years ago, only two of them coming back, deeply shocked with no recollection of what happened to them. The story also seems to have been discreetly covered up by the authorities, Sixpence also disappearing soon before this and the police's missing person investigation likewise proving inconclusive. There are too many gaps in that story for an investigative writer, so using his sister's Facebook friends and his niece's hands as an enthusiastic trainee reporter, Rowan sets about trying to contact the two girls who went missing Violet and Catherine. It begins to look like there's a book in this, but also some measure of danger.
David Mark's writing, descriptions and observations are always original and his characters are always wonderfully drawn and never conventional. Even the grizzled hard-bitten journalist who has fallen on hard times passing on his experience with the naively optimistic and exuberant budding apprentice (who nonetheless takes his guidance and advice on being a writer with a pinch of salt) has a wonderful dynamic of its own. It's fabulously entertaining as Snowdrop becomes increasingly dismayed at her uncle's cynicism, lack of scruples and methods of deception, the essential tools in any journalist toolbox. Mark has great fun with this type of character who is not particularly concerned about discovering a dead body as much as almost relishing it with his "built-in calculator of a corpse's journalistic worth". You suspect this is true of most crime detectives but only Mark is able to put his finger on it and express it this way.
The same quality of writing, wit and originality of observation is evident throughout Still Waters. There's always something about Mark's treatment of crime that is unlike any other, never conventional, always original, often quite dark. Even when he does go into familiar areas, his use of wonderfully defined and often delightfully eccentric characters brings a whole new angle on things. West Cumbria seems to be packed with lead and secondary characters who are going to provide Mark with plenty of material for the two other planned books in the Lakeland Trilogy. Mark might appear to be saturating the market with new books at the minute, but what is amazing is that I've seen no drop in quality, and he in fact just seems to keep getting better. If you haven't experienced one of the UK's best crime writer's yet, Still Waters is a fine place to start.