Book review: The Darkest Place by Jo Spain

The Darkest Place – Jo Spain

Jo Spain used to work as a party advisor for the Irish Parliament, and she clearly brings her awareness of Irish social issues to bear on her crime writing. In her Tom Reynolds novels much of the criminal activity in Ireland tends to have its roots in the country’s social background where the Roman Catholic Church has had a major influence on morals, attitudes and behaviours. There’s a sense of moral outrage in the series at the impact that this has had on ordinary people, on young people, on anyone who doesn’t ‘fit in’. This has resulted in abuse, in hiding away problems, the sins compounded by cover-ups that only allow other abuses and crimes to be committed. As the title indicates, The Darkest Place refers to another national scandal that is gradually being brought to light, but this time I’m not entirely convinced that Jo Spain’s writing really does the subject justice.

The subject of historical scandal and abuse alluded to in The Darkest Place is similar to the one of the Magdalene Laundries, and that’s the treatment of people in mental institutions. As anyone familiar with Spain’s DI Tom Reynolds series knows however, the matter isn’t treated as dryly as that, but is viewed in a more personal and relatable way with a crime that has to be solved. That’s also integrated into or contrasted with (sometimes awkwardly) the on-going contemporary issues that face Irish Garda police officer Tom Reynolds, his family and his colleagues. Tom’s relationship with his new boss has been somewhat fraught recently after the Sleeping Beauties case, so when he’s called at home on Christmas Eve to look into an important case, Tom isn’t sure whether it’s signs of a softening of tensions or further punishment.

40 years to the day after he went missing the body of Dr Conrad Howe has been found buried in a mass grave on Oileán na Coillte, a small island just off the coast of Kerry. The mass grave is not so much of an issue or at least it’s not immediately of concern to the authorities, as this would have been a common way of burying dead patients who were being treated at the hospital and asylum of St Christina’s, located on a remote and sparsely populated island. Conrad Howe was a doctor at the asylum however so his body doesn’t belong there, and investigation shows that he was murdered. People in high places want to know what happened at St Christina’s.

Inevitably, they – and Tom Reynolds – get a lot more than they bargained for. As part of his investigation, Tom has the doctor’s dairy to look through, gaining an insight into the type of people locked up there and the kind of treatment they endured. As you can imagine it’s not pleasant reading, nor – if you are familiar with other recent historical scandals ‘unearthed’ in Ireland – will you be surprised to find out that the definition of ‘mental illness’ has been stretched somewhat to hide away unwanted family ‘problems’. For the sake of any embarrassment they might cause, men and women showing homosexual tendencies, suspected of promiscuity, having drinking problems or suffering from depression and erratic behaviour have all been ‘sent away’, committed to a place where they would be experimented on, never to return to society.

The Darkest Place is disturbing reading, all the more because you know that it’s based on real cases and it wasn’t that long ago that such things took place. Unfortunately, while there’s no denying that Jo Spain highlights such matters and doesn’t stint from getting across the seriousness of the subject, some of her writing and the crime elements do feel a little awkward and out of place this time, and – dare I say it – even a bit ham-fisted for a writer who is usually much better at this. The manner of interweaving revelations from the diary are utterly contrived, the doctor raising his suspicions about rogue treatments and abuse of patients, but unconvincingly going to great lengths not to mention the name of the person in question, the person who most likely killed him. The fact that Tom Reynolds only reads a few entries at a time as the investigation is on-going may also be a great literary device for building tension through gradual revelation, but it’s hardly how a detective would deal with such an important piece of evidence.

That’s not the only piece of dodgy crime-fiction mechanics employed by Spain; there’s also a single and ultimately pointless inclusion of the old conventional point-of-view of the killer or conspirators in italics, and evidently there’s a few twists thrown in at the end. It has to be said though that Spain always manages to turn things on their head at the last minute and is always good at it.  This one is no less effective. The soap-opera elements between Emmet and Linda initially appear intrusive, but again Spain makes them relevant in how they relate to families and secrets that are forced into darkness. While some of the crime fiction conventions rankle a little, there’s no question however that the author does full justice to the importance and the national shame of the underlying subject, highlighting on more than one level the crimes committed, the abuse of power and the arrogant entitlement of those who think they are above the law.

The Darkest Place by Jo Spain is published by Quercus on 20th September 2018


Updated: Sep 30, 2018

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