Jonathan Moore’s latest novel, THE DARK ROOM, combines an unexpectedly complex plot with equally unexpected character empathy. Call it a thriller if you like, but certain plot elements and the character intimacy especially make it an engaging and thoroughly contemporary mystery.
Gavin Cain, a homicide inspector for the San Francisco Police Department, is supervising an exhumation at a cemetery just outside of town as the novel opens. Suddenly his phone rings, and Cain is told that a helicopter is on it way to bring him to the mayor’s office. The exhumed casket – central to a cold case Cain has worked on for several weeks – will have to wait.
At the mayor’s office Cain quickly learns that the mayor is being blackmailed. The mayor shows Cain four photographs he received. They show a beautiful blonde woman being drugged, tortured, and apparently murdered. A letter accompanying the photos threatens more brutal revelations – unless the mayor takes his own life.
Cain, along with his newly assigned partner, set out to find the identity of the blonde woman in the photographs and the source of the blackmail. Their investigation reveals events and associations of the mayor’s past that he spent years keeping hidden. But soon suspects are found dead, and the threats get closer to Cain himself.
The story unfolds through a third-person perspective but Moore keeps the focus exclusively on Cain. Thus we see all the events through Cain’s eyes, and the only inner emotions and thoughts come from Cain himself. It may seem restrictive, but this single focus adds to the intensity of the events as the investigations deepens, and allows us a rare intimacy with the protagonist.
Moore intensifies this intimacy by including Cain’s relationship with his girlfriend, a professional pianist he met during a previous investigation. The girlfriend has suffered a trauma; the source of which and the debilitating results Moore reveals slowly during almost the entire narrative. Cain genuinely loves the woman but knows he must allow her time to work through her trauma by herself.
San Francisco, the location of Moore previous works, is something of a secondary character in the novel. Events are enhanced with the names of streets and landmarks – both famous and little known – of the bayside city. The lingering sunsets and the ever-present fog often reflect Cain’s inner feelings as he moves from one setting to the next.
At times, however, Moore stretches the credibility of his otherwise reliable plot. This is first apparent in the several moments as Cain continues pursuing the cold case he was pulled away from. But ironically the strain is most evident as Cain discovers the identity of the blonde woman in the blackmail photographs.
But these drawbacks are the mostly the result of hindsight; occurring after we’ve already raced to the unexpected conclusion of the mystery.
THE DARK ROOM is a worthy introduction to Moore’s work, and will soon have you seeking out his earlier titles (like THE POISON ARTIST or REDHEADS) while waiting for his next crime novel, —Alan Cranis