Review: No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

nootherdarknessSarah Hilary has a talent for revisiting a topical theme and making something very unexpected out of it. In her debut crime fiction novel Someone Else’s Skin, it was about domestic violence. In this book it is about parenting and child protection. Let me be perfectly honest: this is not an easy book to read as a parent of young children. I had to put it aside at certain moments, to regain my composure.

DI Marnie Rome faces that most disturbing of cases: two dead children, buried for several years in an abandoned bunker, with a new development built on top. There are no clues to help identify the children – no one of similar age was reported missing in the area five years ago. How can a child simply fall through the cracks of the social system?

This is a solid police procedural, as well as a tense psychological thriller, so there is a lot of steady legwork and realistic step-by-step detecting involved. However, is Marnie allowing her own experience of foster siblings to colour her judgement of the family who lives in the house on the site where the bodies were found? We have a limited cast of characters (and suspects) and a fairly well-defined geographical location, which all add to the claustrophobia of the story.

You can imagine the emotional effect on me of the opening chapter describing the two little boys imprisoned in what will become their underground tomb, gradually realising that no one is coming to rescue them. I had a lump in my throat. This is writing which really pulls at your heartstrings, without sentimentality or cheap gimmicks. There have been recent debates about crime fiction focusing too much on graphic violence and sensationalism, to the detriment of compassion, but this book is full of deep caring for the victims and the people around them.

Swiss bunker, from

There are some other intriguing elements here as well, such as the ‘preppers’ (people who believe in impeding apocalypse and therefore prepare themselves for it by sheltering in underground bunkers). I knew these people existed in the US, but was not aware they had arrived on British shores too. Of course, they would probably do best in Switzerland, where (by law) ‘every inhabitant must have a protected place (a bunker) that can be reached quickly from his place of residence”.

Well-written, well-observed, never simplistic or obvious, this is a strong follow-up from a writer I will certainly be keeping an eye on.

12 thoughts on “Review: No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary”

  1. Glad you enjoyed this, Marina Sofia. I’ve been hearing great things about this novel, and it’s very good to hear that HIlary doesn’t resort to gratuitousness or other cheap gimmicks to get the reader engaged. I’ve had this on my radar for a time, and it sounds like I really ought to add it to the list.

    1. You should, Margot – both of the books have scenes of quite memorable emotional distress, but it’s not never gratuitous. And there is a lot of compassion there for the victims in both cases. Even, I have to say, for the would-be perpetrators.

  2. I just read the prologue, with the boys in the bunker, and that was a very tough read. One can (to a certain extent) understand the psychology of sexually motivated murders of children, but this simply seemed cruelty for it’s own sake – really devastating cruelty! Doubtless more will be revealed when I continue with the book, however. (Interesting fact about Switzerland, Marina! Your many travels have left you a mine of information!)

    1. Yes, you surmise correctly: there is a purpose to this apparently purposeless crime.
      As for the Swiss bunkers, we had one in the block of flats we lived in (right next to where we kept our skis in the cellar).

  3. I’m fascinated by that fact about the Swiss law and the bunkers! Over here, people would be letting them out as bijou residences at exorbitant rents… 😉

    1. Some of them have been sold off and repurposed in recent years. But that’s because coverage was about 114% (so more than the total population of Switzerland).

  4. Like you I was stunned that the preppers had made it to British shores but it was a fascinating look at that mind-set. I do like how this author takes issues and develops a crime around them without ever making it feel like a info-dump. Love this series and I’m looking for the next episode.

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