This is a book that will in no way exercise your mind, or place any demands upon you as a reader. When I first started it, I read the first few pages, gave a book-snobby, mocking laugh, and put it right back down on my counter. I scooped it up on the way out the door to work a few days later, since I was running late and couldn’t remember where I had left 1Q84.
I crushed through the first third or so of the book on my commute that day, and found myself engaged and ready to read on the next day. A thriller about team of detectives hunting down a serial killer, The Darker Side takes a lot of cues from The Silence of the Lambs, and, since the murders center around a theme of Catholic contrition, even more from Seven.
Here’s the gist. I won’t give too much away since some of the motive stuff doesn’t come out until later in the book. Basically, bodies are being found in conspicuous places. The cause of death in each case is a sharp puncture wound to the heart, and in the wound is stuffed a numbered crucifix. The bodies pile up and come from more prominent places, and the killer, who calls himself The Preacher, releases “user-tube” videos of the victims’ forced Catholic confessions just prior to murder. The victims are picked because they have deep, dark secrets that somehow The Preacher has uncovered. An FBI team frantically tries to get ahead of the killings and prevent more from occurring, but it’s clear The Preacher is pulling all the strings.
The writing is not particularly good. The prose and syntax aren’t problematic, but never shine either. It’s the depictions of the stock characters that provide the initial sticking points.
The leader of the team of FBI investigators is Smoky Barrett. She’s serial killer expert who survived a violent rape followed by the gruesome murder of her family by a criminal she was hunting. Her face is scarred–like her psyche–but her broken and repaired constitution provides her just what she needs to be the best serial killer hunter there is. Clichéd though it may be, McFadyen depicts this side of Smoky adeptly. It’s when he tries to flesh her out with moments of woman-ness that things get a little off:
I’ve never had a penis, never wanted one, but I’ve held them in my hands. I know what they feel like, smell like, taste like, but I don’t know what it’s like to hold one and feel it being touched at the same time.
This is her trying to relate to a transsexual victim. I’m sure a woman detective could conceivably go through a logic like this when thinking about trannies, but it feels a lot more like a male author trying to make his female protagonist look more definitively female than it does any sort of depiction of natural sentiment. Then, here’s how she relates to motherhood:
She assumes I know what she means, and she’s right. It’s universal mother-speak. Every child knows, when Mom uses your first and last name together, you’re in trouble. First, middle, and last? That particular triumvirate is reserved or the worst offenses, the greatest angers. Duck, cover, and hold.
No father has ever resorted to using middle names, evidently. Mothers only. The rest of the team members are similarly stilted. There’s the wisecracking bitch, who actually has a heart of gold; the geeky young tech expert, who happens to be gay; the white-knight family man, who has but one chink in his armor, etc. Once you get past all that, though, the book is pretty good.
This story is a lot like the plot of Seven. Ultimately that’s why I enjoyed it so much, because I really like that movie. Things get quite grisly, and at times very graphic sexually, so if you don’t like that kind of thing in your thrillers, stay away. Unlike–and perhaps due in-part to–Seven, there is lots of cookiecutterness to be found here, namely in Smoky and her team and the stereotypical serial killer at large. But you’ll almost certainly become drawn-in in large part because of the victims.
The auxiliary characters are the best in the book. Occasionally McFadyen pulls away from the main narration (which is focused though Smoky), and gives small chapters focused on these victims. These usually dip into the character’s past, and unveil for the reader the horrible things the victims have suppressed and The Preacher has uncovered. I usually don’t like perspective shifts like this in books, since it too often feels like the easy way. But in this case, it works great. These segments humanize the victims very nicely, and they can be tough to read. More than one made me squirm. Had McFadyen merely related the information through Smoky or The Preacher, it would have dulled the impact a lot and made it, well, preachy.
The Darker Side did a great job of sopping up time for my daily commute. If you like books/movies like those I referenced in the second paragraph, this is a good choice to occupy your commute, or to take on vacation for a mindless escape.
Just for fun, here’s one more silly, overly-titillating example of McFadyen’s woman-think:
Those priest eyes fix on mine and I feel the old, familiar flush of guilt. He knows, he knows. He knows I masturbate sometimes with the help of a vibrator. He knows I take a secret pleasure at making a man come with my mouth.
[Note: I found this book sitting at an Au Bon Pain with a sticker on it that said “FREE BOOK.” Someone “released it into the wild” through a program run by BookCrossing.com. I’ve since started releasing some books for others to find. It’s cool idea and a program worth checking out.