The Dark Winter, by David Mark

>> Friday, November 07, 2014

TITLE: The Dark Winter
AUTHOR: David Mark

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Starts a series

Hull, northern England. Two weeks before Christmas. Three bodies in the morgue.

The victims - each a sole survivor of a past tragedy - killed in the manner they once cheated death.

Somebody is playing God. And it falls to DS Aector McAvoy to stop their deadly game..

It's coming up to Christmas in Hull, in the Northeast of England, and Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy is chilling in a city centre café with his young son. When he hears screams coming from the Cathedral just across the square, he immediately runs there to help, but is knocked over by a man in a balaclava running out of the building. Turns out a young girl has been killed, hacked to death with a machete by the very man who crashed into McAvoy. The victim had been adopted from Sierra Leone, and McAvoy soon finds out that she had escaped an eerily similar fate some years earlier, when her entire family had been killed by machete-wielding rebels while taking refuge in a church.

Within a few days, McAvoy has made the connection between her and a couple of other cases, all of which involve people who were the sole survivors of a tragedy and have now been killed in circumstances suspiciously similar to those they escaped. But while his colleagues accept his conclusions, some of them go for the easy arrest, in a direction McAvoy is convinced is the wrong one.

I thought this one was pretty great, with a really interesting plot and memorable characters.

Most memorable of all is our protagonist, DS Aector McAvoy. Mark has avoided the cliché of the dysfunctional cop with the screwed up/nonexistent private life, but succeeded in making his well-adjusted, pretty normal protagonist more than interesting enough. McAvoy is a giant Scotsman who looks like he should be a thug, but is actually really sweet. He's the type of person who gets really excited about creating a database to ensure all witness statements are cross-referenced (which makes him a man after my own heart).He is married to a woman he adores and who loves him right back, and he's the father of a cute little boy, with another on the way. He also a very decent guy who genuinely likes and respects women, which made it a pleasure to see the world through his eyes.

Work is a bit more unsettled. McAvoy's joined the Hull police force after an episode which saw him expose corruption amongst senior police officers. The unit he's joined is in the middle of a bit of a power struggle itself, with a new female boss recently appointed (only to show the public that this is not the old corrupt police, some suspect), and who's having to deal with the old-fashioned elements still in the ranks. McAvoy, with his past and his personality, is seen to be on the side of the modernisers, so he faces some of the same backlash as well, and this becomes really relevant during the investigation.

The suspense/mystery element is very well-done, too. It's a really intriguing setup, and I thought the pacing was great. I only figured things out half a step ahead of McAvoy, which is exactly as it should be. There were a couple of instances where I felt the police weren't really taking all the obvious steps (or, to put it another way, this isn't quite how Eve Dallas would have ran the investigation), but then, this might be because McAvoy is a relatively junior policeman and he's not in charge of running the whole thing. There could well have been all sorts of lines of investigation he wouldn't have been more than vaguely aware of.

Something I particularly liked was how the victims were humanised. Mark takes the trouble to make them more than pieces in a puzzle. That is especially the case for the young girl killed in the church and for a person McAvoy figures out is a potential target. You really feel the horror of what has happened, and I felt this added to the quality of the book.

In fact, the book is full of vivid and distinct secondary characters, not just the victims. From McAvoy's boss, a completely in-your-face woman I'd love to see more of, to Russ, the Scouse writer in rehab, they all come alive. There were only a couple of exceptions. One is the loutish good-old-boy inept cop who represents all that is wrong with the police and that McAvoy's boss is there to change. He would have been ok in most books, but compared to the subtlety with which the other secondary characters were drawn, he felt a bit cartoonish. The other is, surprisingly, McAvoy's wife Róisín. There's clearly a lot more to her and to her relationship with McAvoy than we're told about here, so she remains a bit of an enigma. That feels intentional, though, like Mark is saving the good stuff for future books. I'm looking forward to that!

Finally, I liked very much how Mark created the setting. Hull is portrayed with real fondness, but with no rose-tinted specs. From the author's bio, he's lived there, and it shows. I get really annoyed when people make a joke out of places like this, where post-industrial decline has created deprivation. Hull is a common punchline... what will £250K buy you? A bedsit in central London, a small house in the London suburbs, or the whole of Hull. Oh, how funny. You don't get that sort of feeling here at all, and that's great.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.


Darlynne,  7 November 2014 at 19:23  

I'm so glad you liked this book! Agreed on all points and what a relief to have an emotionally well-adjusted cop.

His boss, the in-your-face woman, had me wondering a couple of times what she was up to. Overall, she seems a straight shooter.

Really looking forward to the next book.

Rosario 10 November 2014 at 18:24  

I did wonder about her as well. Especially that scene in the car, when I got a sick feeling that she might make a pass. I was afraid Mark might betray the character he'd built and make McAvoy sleep with her, too, which I really wouldn't have liked. I'm sure there'll be more from her in future books!

Like you, I can't wait to read book 2! By the way, I forgot to say in my review, but I listened to the audiobook and the narrator was great. I loved how he did the accents. Even Russ's Scouse, which is sort of my expertise after living in Liverpool for so long, felt real. :)

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