John Harvey has hit his stride in DARKNESS AND LIGHT, the third of his Frank Elder series. Frank has taken early retirement from a respected if not distinguished career in the Nottingham police force and, as in previous books, lives in a Spartan existence in Cornwall. He has left the remnants of his life in Nottingham: his ex-wife, Joanne, who in her superficial, materialistic values is the opposite of Frank, and a troubled and distant teenage daughter, Katharine. I enjoyed the previous two outings for Elder, but found them overall not as assured as Harvey's superb Resnik books. In DARKNESS AND LIGHT, Elder comes fully into his own.
As well as being the third outing for Elder, the book is itself divided into thirds. The first, and most successful, third, tells the story of Frank's temporary return to Nottingham to search for a missing woman. The gradual uncovering of her life, as seen through Frank's eyes while he searches for her, is compelling to read. In the middle third, a body is found and Frank joins up with his old colleague Maureen Prior, a senior policeman who has featured in previous Elder books, to interview witnesses and suspects: a bit of a whistle-stop tour of local residents of various types. The case reminds Frank of an eight-year old unsolved mystery from his days on the force, so the investigation also focuses on the old crime and whether the two are linked. Charlie Resnik makes a fleeting appearance; readers of these earlier books will recognise many of the cafes and other locations as Frank pursues his investigation.
The final, and least successful third of the book is triggered, as is so often the case in detective fiction when all the leads have run out, by the discovery of another body. This event leads to a conclusion of sorts. The identity of the criminal, after previous heavy hints, is reasonably obvious, but what makes the most impression in this excellent book is the characters. Joanne, in particular, comes into sharper focus than in previous installments, and the darkness and occasional glimpses of light in the family dynamics between her, Frank and Katharine are thoughtfully portrayed.
A charming feature of the Elder novels is the book reviews: we share Frank's thoughts and discussions with other characters about the books he's currently reading, in this case FOX IN THE ATTIC by Richard Hughes, followed by SONS AND LOVERS by D H Lawrence. Not only do the books shed light on the mysteries, but provide for Frank a welcome but unexpected channel of communication between him and the daughter with whom he struggles to connect.
Although it isn't clear whether Harvey is going to write any more Elder books (his next, GONE TO GROUND, isn't one), I hope that we do meet this attractive character again in future.