I love it when I come across a great surprise. Stephen Leather’s Nightfall is one of those surprises. In the first book of his Nightingale series, Leather creates his own take on the traditional noir style detective story and introduces us to his protagonist, Jack Nightingale.
Nightingale is a former police negotiator who turned detective after losing a most unusual suicide jumper and being implicated- but not actually charged – in a subsequent unfortunate death connected with the incident. Things are going as well as can be expected until he finds out that everything he thought he knew about himself was wrong. In a few short days, Jack learns that he was adopted at birth, and his real father was a rich, crazy man obsessed with the occult who sold Jack’s soul to a devil. Oh, and payment will be due on his 33rd birthday – which is just three weeks away. As if that isn’t bad enough, as time runs short and he keeps looking for answers, people keep dying around him. What follows is a great detective story laced with murder, the occult, and some very interesting characters.
Jack Nightingale is a great hard-boiled type. A tortured soul who continues to question himself after the last, worst, experience in his former career. Leather uses this inner turmoil and self-doubt well throughout the book as Jack frequently encounters situations where he is informed that he is “going to hell” (other characters mutter it during conversations, he finds it written in blood on a mirror, etc.) – only to immediately be unable to determine if what he has just heard or seen is real. His sanity is continually in question by those around him, and by Jack, himself. His secretary, Jenny, is rich enough to not have to work and joins him in his sometimes dangerous and illegal exploits. Her character functions both as a support for him and a touchstone for the saner, more normal world. But, she never reveals exactly why she’s working for him. It could be that she’s secretly in love with him, but as she refuses to ever directly answer his question and the plot thickens, the reader begins to wonder about her motivation. A variety of other characters are encountered in the book from former colleagues and informants, to millionaire occult book collectors, to the demon that is behind the scenes, manipulating Jack’s fate.
In addition to liking the character and format, there are a lot of visual images that the book provides, which I found extremely well done. I really like the house he inherited – a crumbling, empty mansion, with a hidden basement containing some of the most rare occult books in the world. And, some of the conjuring sessions – with the ouija board and within the chalked out circle – were really good, too.
Overall, there is a nice combination of familiarity and novelty throughout the book as Leather takes a genre that seems familiar at first and works it into his own dark vision. I am looking forward to reading more in this series!