Written by Rob Sinclair — You’ll have noticed that one of our New Talent November sponsors is Bloodhound Books, a publisher specialising in tracking down new crime authors and bringing their books to market both as ebooks and paperbacks. Rob Sinclair is part of the Bloodhound gang, and you may have come across his earlier Enemy series. He’s not exactly a new author, but Dark Fragments is his first standalone novel and in it he steps away from espionage and heads into new territory.
Psychological thrillers are enjoying a real renaissance at the moment, but most of them are either written by women authors or feature women as the main protagonists – SJ Watson and SK Tremayne come to mind here. This may be about to change, though, and books such as A Suitable Lie by Michael Malone and Dark Fragments are at the forefront of this shift.
In this combination of domestic and gangland thriller, we are firmly in the mind of Birmingham-based Ben Stephens. He’s a management consultant, loving husband and father of two, with an average job and average life… or so it seems at first glance. Appearances are deceptive, and we soon learn that Ben seems to attract more than his fair share of bad luck. His first wife was murdered seven years ago, when their son was just a baby, and the killer has never been found. He is estranged from his twin sister, his job is on the line, and he is massively indebted (both financially and morally) to one of the most notorious criminals in town. As the extent of his troubles become clear, his second marriage is in danger of breaking down and he worries about not being allowed access to his children.
Cracking under the stress, frightened out of his wits, Ben becomes increasingly reckless and erratic in his behaviour. He hatches elaborate revenge plans which only serve to suck him deeper and deeper into a hopeless mire of his own making. Readers will either watch in horrified fascination to see just how low he can go, or else give up on Ben altogether. The character really is that divisive. Yet the people around him in the story are often not much better and drive him to further excesses. There are quite a few brutal scenes of beatings – both given and taken – which will not appeal if you are of a squeamish nature.
You’ve got to admire the author, though. It is very brave to create a protagonist capable of provoking pity and annoyance in equal measure. Ben is at times breathtakingly unaware of his own flawed attitudes – towards women, for instance – or he does not wish to address them. At other times he comes across as full of self-pity and self-justification, blaming everyone but himself for the uncomfortable position in which he finds himself.
The action is paused at times by brief chapters recounting an interview, done after the events in the book have unfolded, between Ben and what is presumably a psychologist. While these chapters are probably designed to provide more insight into the reasons for Ben’s poor choices, they feel a bit artificial and unnecessary.
Nevertheless, this is an unusual and intriguing story, suitable for fans of faster-paced, grittier psychological thrillers, like those written by Peter Swanson or Mark Edwards.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars