Nightfall: Solve the Mystery, Save Your Soul

Cover of NightfallI 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!

Savage and Beautiful: Laird Barron’s The Light Is the Darkness

Cover of The Light Is the DarknessI absolutely love Laird Barron‘s work, and have previously written on him. Recently I read The Light Is the Darkness and was completely blown away again.

Conrad Navarro is a trained fighter for the Pageant, a series of brutal events staged in secret for an elite group of rich creeps. Conrad is also searching for his sister, Imogene, who disappeared during her own search for the mysterious, and nefarious, Dr. Drake, whose unorthodox scientific experiments are believed by both siblings to have caused the death of their brother when they were children. The book is set in the weird version of a noir underground. Power plays pull Conrad back and forth between warring factions, and the characters spend most of their time entrenched within corruptive practices of one type or another. The weird infringes throughout, whether it is the odd set of physical attributes that Conrad seems to have been born with, or, in a more overt appearance, an otherworldly erotic close encounter with something in the other room.

Barron’s writing is sparse and minimalist when needed, both capturing the brutal feel of this character and his world, and then expanding just enough when needed to bring in a dark beauty for the descriptions. This work has some extremely beautiful dark prose that hits hard whether it describes a nightmarish landscape just the other side of this dimension

The moon shrieked below the threshold of human perception, reverberated in vast stygian chambers of rock and bone.

or the dream land someone like Conrad visits in his sleep

This bestial presence hunched until its crown of antlers scraped rock, and it chuckled and growled and reached for him, clutched him and drew him into the light.

or the beginning of one of the many, bloody and gruesome fights

The slow waltz in Hell began without music.

This book unfolds almost like a classic detective story, with Conrad continuing to search for his sister while being continually sidetracked by the competing factions in his world. However, his search for her, for answers, and for the man that may have ruined his life comes to a much more dramatic conclusion, as dark unimaginable forces begin to come into play, and Conrad himself begins to change.

If for some reason you have not yet read any of Barron’s work, you absolutely should stop whatever you are doing right now and go find some.