The Darkest Hour by Katherine Howell is her second novel, telling two connected, interweaving stories with a cracking pace and confidence. I enjoyed it tremendously, despite not being sure about it at first.
The book opens with Lauren Yates, a Sydney paramedic, almost running over an injured young man running across the road late at night. Jumping out of her ambulance to help, the young man and his friend hastily drive away. Lauren investigates the alley where the men had run from, and encounters a horrific crime in progress. What’s more, she knows the perpetrator, who is able to threaten her sufficiently to make her stay silent about what she’s seen.
Six months later, Lauren and her partner Joe are called to the scene of another crime, this time a street where a man, James Kennedy, has been stabbed. While the ambulance is racing to the hospital, Kennedy is able to say the name of the man who attacked him: the same man who previously threatened Lauren. Lauren therefore has a dilemma – she has previously lied in court at the inquest of the man murdered in the alley in denying that she saw the attack, yet she can’t withhold the name of Kennedy’s assailant from the police because Joe, her colleague, also heard it.
Lauren is one of the two main protagonists in this novel; the other is Ella Marconi, a police detective who is being investigated after events in the previous book by this author (Frantic). Ella is determined to prove herself so that she gets to stay in homicide, hence when she pulls the James Kennedy investigation she is determined to solve it. She’s stymied, however, when Lauren withdraws her evidence about the perpetrator.
I was in two minds about this book up to this point. I wasn’t impressed by the coincidence of Lauren being involved in two cases involving the same perpetrator, or with her dilemma of silence. Lauren is a competent and committed paramedic who has evidently shown plenty of resilience at earlier stages of her life. I didn’t find her vacillation very interesting to read about.
But luckily it doesn’t last long, as Lauren realises that she and her family can’t live with a threat hanging over them. After she comes clean with Ella and the police force, the book shifts a gear into overdrive, and continues at a breathtaking pace until the end. Katherine Howell has a great way of keeping up the action and tension, while also providing plenty of authentic details about the police investigation and the paramedics’ life of constant call-outs, tension and bravery as they repeatedly help the victims of accidents, attacks, and self-destruction.
The police investigation is compelling, with several different divisions coordinating various lines of enquiry as it becomes clearer that certain events must be connected. The question is, how? I really enjoyed the way in which witnesses were interviewed, phone records checked, and evidence gradually put together to build up a complete picture. The author is particularly good at interspersing chapters from the point of view of some of the less savoury characters without giving away to the reader how everything is related. And she presents really authentic characters in Lauren and Ella by showing the reader glimpses of their home lives, their families and how they deal with everyday and not-so-everyday domestic tensions.
Although this is the second novel by Katherine Howell, you don’t have to have read the first to enjoy it (I haven’t). It seems that the character of Lauren is new to The Darkest Hour, and one learns enough of Ella’s back-story not to feel one is missing out by not knowing all the events described in Frantic.
Above all, The Darkest Hour is written with confident and authoritative prose. The author is clearly very talented and I’m eagerly awaiting her next novel, Cold Justice.
I thank Crimefiction reader of It's a Crime! blog, and the publisher PanMacmillan, for my copy of this book.
Read a review of Frantic at It's a Crime!
Read another review of The Darkest Hour at The Guardian (review by Joanna Hines, but it is brief.)
The author interviewed at It's a Crime! after winning the Davitt award.