Written by AK Benedict — Here’s a crime novel where you get more than you bargained for. Jonathan Dark is a cross-dressing Metropolitan Police detective grieving over a dead colleague, his failed marriage and the woman he failed to save from a violent stalker. Inevitably, his personal life has taken a back seat to police work. Now the stalker and potential serial killer is back and has used that earlier victim’s remains for a grisly marriage proposal to another woman – a ring on a severed finger.
The latest object of this stalker’s twisted affection is a mudlark called Maria King, who was born blind but has since had corrective surgery. However, she prefers to remain sightless in the city she knows by smell, sound and touch by wearing a blindfold. She’s also stubbornly continuing as a blogging mudlark, which makes her vulnerable on two fronts: the exposed, early morning trips to go searching for washed-up history on the shoreline of the Thames with her guide dog, and the digital footprint she leaves on social media for this digital-savvy stalker.
That sounds like plenty to be going on with, but AK Benedict’s second novel is also a supernatural story in which ghosts roam the London streets. When a relative takes pity on the homeless detective, he’s given the key to an old Spitalfields cottage undergoing refurbishment. But Dark starts to suspect he’s being haunted. It turns out his neighbour, an undertaker, is actually on speaking terms with the spirit world. With his guidance, Dark develops a burgeoning affinity with these paranormal entities.
If that wasn’t enough, Jonathan Dark or The Evidence of Ghosts is also a conspiracy thriller, in which a shadowy (and slightly ludicrous) elite organisation known as The Ring tests new recruits by getting them to commit a murder if they want to enjoy the financial benefits of this secret club. When you fall foul of The Ring, it proves how far its tentacles reach with a challenge: the victim is given an Oyster card and an hour to get beyond the M25.
There are many positives about Benedict’s follow-up to The Beauty of Murder, which was set in Cambridge. Benedict captures some of the atmosphere of modern London and its mysteries. She’s also a gifted writer with a sharp, witty turn of phrase on almost every page of what is a very readable supernatural procedural. This is a potential series to rival Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books, which also incorporates the supernatural into crime stories set in the capital.
The main problem is that the splicing of genres – crime and a ghost story – dilutes both elements. At times, Benedict has to delineate how this ghost world works, and her invented mythos detracts from the novel’s narrative drive. While it might be an entertaining distraction to consider whether Jack the Ripper has a ghost or describe spectral football managers arguing tactics on the touchline at their old club, it’s also hard to take seriously. John Connolly makes the mix of crime and the supernatural feel more seamless – and more threatening – in his series of books.
Perhaps the real stumbling block of Jonathan Dark is that if a detective can talk to ghosts to discover the identity of a murderer, it removes the central quest of a crime novel. In fairness, Benedict is able to throw up plenty of obstacles in ‘ghost-locked’ London, so it’s never that simple. But her combination of cops, serial killer and spooks can get a bit Scooby-Doo and the final showdown on the banks of the river is a little flat.
Yet for all its flaws, Jonathan Dark or The Evidence of Ghosts is an engaging and unusual crime novel that makes effective use of the capital city – and its history – as a setting. Benedict is a decent crime writer who does manage to wrong-foot you every so often. She’s also put a lot into this novel, where a more careful author might have held material back for future books. Death has no sequel, as one character discovers. But haunted detective Jonathan Dark seems destined for further cases.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars