The Gift Of Darkness – V.M. Giambanco

V.M. Giambanco’s debut novel The Gift Of Darkness is an intense and rewarding crime read. And it’s also the slow-burniest of slow-burners. But before we go any further, peruse the blurb:

Unknown-1Twenty-five years ago in the woods near the Hoh River in Seattle, three boys were kidnapped. One did not come home.

A quarter of a decade later, a family of four is found brutally murdered, the words thirteen days scratched near their lifeless bodies.

Homicide Detective Alice Madison ran away from home as a child, one breath away from committing an unforgivable act; as an adult, she found her peace chasing the very worst humanity has to offer. Madison believes these murders are linked. And she has thirteen days to prove it.

To stop a psychopath, Madison must go back into the woods and confront the unsolved mystery of the Hoh River Boys. She must forget her training and follow her instincts to the terrifying end as enemies become allies and, in the silent forest, time is running out to save another life.

The Gift Of Darkness is a complex and satisfying procedural on many levels, and for a first novel it’s often extraordinarily sophisticated. There’s a substance and nuance to Giambanco’s plot and characters which is refreshing and grown-up. The production-values are top-notch. There’s a real sense of place here, of the cold and the colour: you can feel the hard snow crunching beneath the feet of the characters during the hard Seattle winter. Giambanco takes familiar situations and characters – a young detective yearning to prove herself; a team of world-weary cops – but manages to sidestep the usual clichés.

The focus is very much on Madison, but the damaged and dangerous John Cameron is a terrifically ambiguous character. He dances at the edges of the narrative, occasionally stepping front and centre. I’d like to have seen more of him, for his backstory to have been explored in more depth, and for his relationship with Madison to have been developed.

Cameron is a dark and fascinating character. The story pulses more quickly when he’s  in it. I just wished he was called something else. Try as I might, I struggled to get a picture of our pudgy PM out of my mind when I read his name.

But let’s not ignore the elephant in the room here. By goodness, this book is long. It’s 505-pages and just shy of 143,000 words long – it weighs 12lbs on my kitchen scales.

It’s a big slab of a thing. A proper hardback, an honest-to-goodness story. There’s conviction here, but one wonders how much story, if any, was removed in the editing process. The prose often falls into a holding pattern when the plot yearns to hurtle forwards. When the plot slips up a gear – as in the intense and emotional climax – the writing is absolutely terrific.

Giambanco is not one to let a plot point dangle. She dots all the i’s in a winding procedural. Every little twist and turn is signed off carefully. That often means a lot of conversations with the other detectives, the CSU lady, and an FBI guy at Quantico. Madison spends a lot of time bashing the phone and anxiously bringing her colleagues up to date. Other reviewers have suggested the novel coud be shorter, a lot shorter, and it’s difficult to argue with that.

And those Conrad references – am I imagining those? The Nostromo, the river, the wilderness, The Gift Of Darkness, Madison/Marlowe Cameron/Kurtz?

The Gift Of Darkness is such a compelling read in so many ways – it reminds me a bit of a boxset that you’re watching. You’re loving every minute of it, you can’t get enough, but by the time you’ve seen that HBO logo, and heard that sting music, twelve, thirteen, fourteen times, you’re a little bit concussed, a little bit glassy-eyed. Make no mistake, the writing here is terrific, but the pacing often makes the terrain more rocky than it needs to be.

You get the sense that Giambanco is limbering up, finding her feet. I think she’s going to be a hell of a crime writer. Pacing problems aside, she already is. She’s working on a sequel. I’ll definitely be there, but hopefully next time I’ll be able to fit the book in my bag.

What I liked: In novels and screenplays there’s often a midpoint where the protagonist’s world is flipped upside down. Think of Brody on that flimsy wooden boat, having to take to the high seas – he’s way out of his comfort zone. And it happens in The Gift Of Darkness. It’s something that forces Madison outside of the comfortable protection of the Seattle police department and into the zone of the seriously dangerous John Cameron. It’s this midpoint where The Gift Of Darkness really clicks into gear.

Many thanks to Celia Keating at Midas PR for the review copy.

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