Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Penguin, £6.99, 978-0141021164

Ex-FBI agent turned PI, Alex Rourke returns in John Rickard's third novel, The Darkness Inside, facing personal demons from his past when a convicted child-killer offers up a deathbed confession... in exchange for a confession from the man who put him behind bars in the first place...

This third novel feels almost like a relaunch of Rickards's series of novels featuring Alex Rourke. There's a partial sense of a slate being wiped clean, of the novel being an excellent jumping on point for new fans.

Indeed, there's very little mention of Alex's previous work beyond the return of some recurring characters (including his current boss), and this serves to bring a whole new set of readers directly on board without weighing them down with emotional baggage.

There are advatanges and disadvantages to this approach, of course. The advantage of clarity and relatively little backstory is immediately obvious. But some of the emotional resonance that could be brought to the story is diluted by almost glossing over past events. By which this reviewer means the traumatic incident that formed the heart of the second novel, A Touch of Ghosts. The death of a lover - particularly one who seemed so important to Alex just one book earlier - seems to have been hushed up. There are moments here and there where we notice this new Alex Rourke seems a little harder round the edges. More melancholy than before and perhaps even more reckless. And just a small acknowledgement of the trauma that brought this about might have rounded him out slightly. After all, in the opening sequence where Alex talks about people saying he's a "nice guy" there's a beautiful air of melancholy to the character that wisely stays away from self-pity, and it would be nice to know that there was something behind that air other than his current situation.

But all of this is a minor point, because if you take The Darkness Inside as a reboot to the series, a fresh jolt of adrenaline, and you have a novel that moves fast and quickly pulls the reader into its world. We know from word one that something bad is going to happen. That Alex's personal morality is about to be tested.

This new pacing works well, and after the set up, which is admittedly a little long - especially when we know what's coming - the book moves into a kind of freefall as Alex's life falls apart. There's a great adherence to the old adage of having a man walk through the door with a gun whenever the pacing falters, but Rickards keeps his action under control and believable for the most part, grounded by the more confident sounding narration of Alex Rourke. There is still the odd moment where Alex betrays his author's British roots (the phrase, "student-types" sounds particularly out of place when used to describe patrons at a bar) and sometimes the first person, present tense narration comes off a little clumsy, particularly during the flashbacks that take up the early part of the novel (although this reviewer is not a great fan of first person present-tense for precisely these reasons) but as we move to the climax, the narration gathers its pace and the confidence builds nicely. In fact, confidence is the key word here - while Rickards's earlier novels had nice touches (there is one - relatively quiet, almost incidental - scene in particular towards the end of Touch of Ghosts that stayed with this reviewer long after closing the pages) there is more consistency on display here that bodes well for future novels.

In all, The Darkness Inside is a well constructed thriller with a likeably down to earth protagonist caught up in an increasingly dangerous situation. Narrative nods to shows like Twenty-Four and novels by writers such as Harlan Coben are easy to spot as Rickards piles the pressure on his hero to ludicrous degrees. Its all a little unlikely, as these things are, but ultimately engaging and the well-executed tension keeps those pages turning.

Its a nice turn out for a series, too, with the drive and tone inkeeping with previous books, but shaking up the situation to make things more action packed. For readers like me, a few more continuity nods might have been nice, but as a relaunch to the series, this breezy thriller makes an ideal jumping on point for readers who are new to Rickards' world.

Russel McLean for CrimeSceneScotland, 26/05/07
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