Book review: Suspicious Minds by David Mark
Suspicious Minds - David Mark
There's a dark core that runs through all of David Mark's writing, whether it's a by-product of community history in the landscapes of the north of England (Still Waters, Cold Bones), or the more modern areas of criminal activity found in his DS McAvoy series (Scorched Earth), in his standalone horror writing (A Rush of Blood) or historical fiction (The Zealot's Bones). It's not surprising then that even when he turns his hand to romantic melodrama in the style of Daphne du Maurier, that he somehow still manages to bring a dark edge to the story.
The familiar strengths of David Mark's writing are evident in Suspicious Minds from the get-go. The first is how he reliably establishes a tense dangerous situation, often involving a sympathetic character who is in a lot of trouble. We don't yet know much about Liz in the first few pages of the prologue, but it's hard to imagine that she has done anything bad enough to deserve being taken into the woods with the 9 year old daughter of her partner to be executed by a man who seems to be unmoved by their desperate pleas. Which brings us to another of the author's strengths; his ability to depict real people without ever falling back on standard stereotypes, unique individuals, some too sympathetic to be in the situation that Liz and Anya are to find themselves in eight months later.
On the other hand, as we go back eight months and get to know her, the chances are that Liz (or Betsy as she later chooses to call herself) was always going to end up in trouble of one sort or another. Without getting bogged down in clinical technicalities, Mark takes the time to describe Liz's struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder and the difficulties this causes in her family life. It doesn't help that she seems to be living with a man who exploits her low self-esteem and her doomed-to-fail efforts to get help for this mental disorder. It's just a question of how bad it is going to be and knowing David Mark (and having already gained some indication from the prologue), it has the potential to be very grim and serious indeed.
There is always as much to enjoy in his characters as there is in the dark violent drama that usually unfolds, so you can make the most of Mark going almost full romantic drama for a large part of the novel, albeit with characters like Liz that are just a little more edgy than usual. Edgy maybe, but wonderfully human, people you can recognise and relate to, laugh at and sympathise with. Even if it takes a while to gain any indication of how the plot is going to take a turn for the worse, the writing and characters are strong enough that you almost regret that it's going to inevitably head off in in a darker, nastier direction.
Almost but not quite. Much as it's wonderful to see a talented writer like Mark stretch himself successfully in this direction, you get the feeling that the crime drama this time is rather perfunctory, secondary to his love of writing about characters that are undoubtedly close to home. If it weren't for the prologue, tactfully put there upfront, you would have little indication that the story would be heading in a thriller direction for a good third of the book. There are hints dropped about a surly and nasty lord of the manor and suggestions that he may have played a hand in some "accidents" in the otherwise near idyllic farmland, but none of it is as original or surprising as the shocks that Mark usually drops in.
Although the story takes some conventional Hitchcockian or Du Maurien twists in the romantic melodrama vein with characters straying a little towards caricature, Mark successfully manages to give the plotting a more substantial, modern and more realistic edge by the fact that the darkness this time comes very much from within. And it's not just the darkness of the condition that Liz struggles with - even if that does seem to make her a magnet for trouble - but all of the characters have struggles with inner demons to one extent or another. The darkness comes from somewhere real, and when it comes together with the darkness in the world outside, it can only mean trouble on a scale that you only get from David Mark.