Written by Darren E Laws — With the eloquent subtitle Songs of Love and Murder, this is the follow up to Laws’ 2008 novel, Turtle Island. The central character once again is FBI agent Georgina O’Neil, but we find her in a bad place. Having been on the verge of losing her badge after the tragic outcome of her last case, she collapses at the disciplinary hearing before judgment can be delivered. Hospital tests reveal that she has an aggressive brain tumour and after a life-saving operation we pick up her career as a former special agent. O’Neil is helping out private investigator Leroy LaPortiere, himself a former policeman.
Three generations of female country singers have come to grief. Amy Dark, the grandmother, was murdered, and her daughter Caroline Dark disappeared without trace. Now, granddaughter Susan Dark is in the process of recording an audacious new album. Thanks to modern technology, she is about to duet and trio with her mother and grandmother but then she too goes missing. Stevie Anderson, the backer of what may well be a best-selling album, hires La Portiere to find out what has happened. La Portiere brings O’Neil on-board, partly because of her FBI connections, but primarily because he wants to help stimulate her rehabilitation.
La Portiere and O’Neil, helped and hindered by a media camera crew and a British music journalist called Fisher Sutherland, head down to Texas to revisit the scenes of the two earlier Dark tragedies, in the belief that the cases are linked. By solving one they think they’ll solve all three. On the road we meet more intriguing characters such as Sheriff Mary T Rankin, who appears to have paranormal gifts, and we become aware of the powerful media magnate Randolph Thorne, although his role in the drama is not revealed until much later. These people are more than bit-players, but the real spine of the story is provided by the two main characters. Georgina O’Neil is brave, feisty and passionate – in every sense of the word. Leroy is immensely likeable, and displays the stoicism of a Thomas Hardy leading man, particularly in the face of Georgina’s errant and sometimes erotic tendencies.
Along the way we have enough gore and body fluids to feed a shelf-full of pulp, and the central villain’s breathtaking capacity for evil will satisfy even the most jaded connoisseur of fictional psychopaths. The plot? It is, by the width of a cigarette paper, just the right side of crazy. I certainly experienced more than one Twin Peaks moment during the narrative, when my head was spinning trying to work out what was going on. Remember the celebrated puzzle from The Big Sleep? Who killed the chauffeur and why? Well, there’s one of those here, too. I would like to think this is not carelessness on the part of the author, but rather a David Lynch style technique to create ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ – to borrow Churchill’s words.
This is a very clever, very entertaining and very ambitious novel. Like all book reviewers, I have a routine. Mine is this; read a chunk, jot down some notes, forget about the book, get on with something else; come back to book, same process as before. I cannot pay Dark Country any higher compliment than to say that between readings I was constantly wondering and worrying about what was going to happen next. After the climactic finale in the Cedarville State Forest – which plays out like something from a Hieronymus Bosch vision of Hell – we have a significant birth, and a tragic death. In spite of the previous 300 pages of technicolour mayhem, I found both of these particularly moving.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars