Written by Sarah Hilary — Two little boys huddle together in the darkness, the older boy trying his best to be brave for his younger brother. No toy-filled bedroom for these two; instead, they are in a small, bare box-like structure, lying on basic bedding, a bucket for a toilet and no windows to brighten their view. Commit that to memory, because it’s a scene that resonates throughout No Other Darkness, the second novel by Sarah Hilary who won such acclaim for her debut work, Someone Else’s Skin. That came out last year, and her second novel, No Other Darkness, has been worth the wait.
Following the compelling first chapter described above, the action moves on five years, and a green-fingered resident is desperately trying to turn the barren plot behind his newly built home into a garden. That is, until his enthusiastic digging uncovers a manhole cover leading into an underground bunker, which contains the skeletal remains of two young children, spooned together on a rudimentary bed, a bucket for a toilet and a rusting pile of tinned goods in one corner.
Enter DI Marnie Rome and her sergeant, Noah Jake. Both make their way into the sad and dingy grave and are affected in very different ways; Rome immediately senses the despair of the two victims, while Jake’s detection skills are put on the back burner when claustrophobia kicks in and he has to go outside until his panic subsides. And then he gets to thinking that he’s a grown man, so what terrors must the little victims have endured before they perished, alone, in that barren spot?
Their investigation has a lot of questions to answer. Who were these boys? Who put them there, and why are they in an underground cell? Evidence found at the scene suggests someone else was there, and DNA tests show that third person had a familial relationship to the dead children.
Readers of the first Marnie Rome book will know her tragic background – her parents were knifed to death by the young man they were fostering and, years later, Steven Keele still holds the key to the mystery of why he became a double murderer. Rome has tried to forget about him and his crime, but in No Other Darkness, Keele is again intent upon reeling her into his web of deceit. Families, both dysfunctional and happy, play a huge part in this narrative. Sometimes it is difficult to work out which is which as Hilary displays a slight of hand worthy of any magician.
The story is set mainly in the London boroughs, but just when you’re getting into your reading stride a couple of new characters are introduced. The women are in prison in Durham, and it soon becomes apparent that they had something to do with the dead boys. But who are they and what was their involvement? You’ll be taken on quite a journey before all becomes clear.
No Other Darkness is a particularly apt title for a psychological thriller in which shadows, both real and imaginary, are used to full, menacing effect, creating hidden depths and myriad opportunities to surprise and confuse you before a finale that will have you biting your nails in anguish. It is like a literary dance of the seven veils – as one layer is discarded, another comes into play and so on, until the final nugget is revealed and everything you thought you already knew skews, just slightly. No sign of difficult second novel syndrome here. This is already a contender for my book of the year, and it’s only April!
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CFL Rating: 5 Stars