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Tabula Rasa

Devouring Dark

By Alan Baxter, Grey Matter Press, 2018

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

Imagine a game of speed chess with three players, where the board is London's grimy streets and all the pieces are black. That would be something like reading Alan Baxter's latest novel. There is a young man with a terrible secret. A woman who tends the dying. A professional dealer in death, who takes pride in the different ways he can deliver it. All are on a collision course which could see death unleashed in every direction.

Although this is a tale of supernatural horror, Baxter conveys it with absolute conviction. He introduces one, bizarre element into an otherwise realistic situation and allows things to unfold with an almost crushing logic. Matt, Amy and Vince are none of them fools; nor is the detective who discovers their trail. They are aware that actions have consequences, just as their circumstances and, increasingly, their emotions demand urgent, decisive action. From the first, shocking scene, the stakes are clear and following, the suspense ratchets as high as a detective's blood pressure.

"But forensics said it didn't really bear the hallmarks of burning. More like the body had been drained of all moisture, dessicated like an Egyptian mummy, left somewhere to dry for years on end. But something else had occurred too. A kind of disruption of the flesh and organs on a cellular level. The bones were brittle like chalk...

"It remained an open case, but no one at the station ever expected it to go any further, like so many cold cases, unsolved murders, strange deaths, lost properties. But Charlie had a habit of remembering..."

I said the situation was realistic, but that does not mean bland. There are places in this world, in our society, where many people (authors included) might prefer not to go. Into a hospice, into the room of a man dying of cancer. Into the even more sordid corners of organised crime. Into the orbit of an abused child, who has trusted the wrong person once again. Even an excursion into the rarefied air of money, fame and power can be ugly, once the glamour has worn away. But then, even a street in Camden on a grey afternoon can be terrifying. The key is detail, often slipped in under the guise of something else, that will absolutely explode later on. This is some solid world building and absolutely evil plotting.

A prolific writer of novels, as of short stories, Baxter is known for his masterful combat sequences, that are such a feature of Bound (Alex Caine #1). But here, as in the 2017 novella The Book Club, there is a tremendous concern, and feel, for human connection and what happens in its absence. For me, one of the hardest-hitting scenes was when Amy is forced to tell a patient that his son will not be visiting in the foreseeable future. For we, as readers, have already seen the potential result. For it is there, amongst the loneliness, anger and despair, that the cracks may form, that let the darkness in. Once that happens, then only love and true friendship stand a chance at saving life and soul, and even then, the price will be high. Sacrifice may be required.

With its intense atmosphere and shredding climax, Devouring Dark shows what can be achieved by eschewing cliché and confronting fear face on. Some readers may find it confronting, even difficult in places. But, for those who seek to peer into the darkness (by the light of a good, reading lamp), it is a rewarding experience.

 

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