Jo Spain’s Chief Inspector Tom Reynolds has had a bad year, harassed by his immediate boss, Joe Kennedy (a portentous name if ever there was one) and blamed by the press for problems that are not of his making, things only get worse when he is contacted by Kennedy on Christmas Day and told that he is to prepare to travel to the West Coast Island of Oileán na Coilte to investigate a forty year old cold case. The island housed St Christina’s an asylum long ago closed down and now the subject of archeological investigation as a precursor to modern development. Forty years previously, however, it had been the centre of an investigation into the disappearance of one of its senior doctors, Conrad Howe. Howe’s wife, Miriam, has never given up hope that he will return home and each Christmas, on the anniversary of his disappearance, she dresses the Christmas tree in exactly the way he liked it in anticipation of his homecoming. Now, concealed in one of the mass graves dug for the patients, Howe’s body has been found, little more than a skeleton, but still wearing his distinctive jacket which also contains his wallet.
Horrified by the details he reads in a diary, secreted by Howe in his attic, of the treatments inflicted on the asylum’s patients, Tom finds himself searching not just for a murderer, but also for the identity of the doctor at the centre of this abuse. His efforts and those of his team are thwarted at every turn, however, by the presence on the island of Dr Lawrence Boylan, former head of the asylum and now a seriously ill man. It is clear that he and the ex-nurse, Carla Crowley, who now takes care of him, are hiding something but whether it is to do with Conrad Howe’s disappearance or with more recent occurrences isn’t immediately apparent.
There have been several novels over the past decade that have dealt with the aftermath of the closing of asylums, many of which housed people who should never have been classified as insane in the first place. One of the most interesting questions that Spain poses in The Darkest Place is to do with the effect that living and working in such an institution had on the people employed there. No doubt many of the patients wrongly incarcerated did eventually become mentally unstable, but what about the staff? How many of them managed to retain their sanity and what were the consequences for all concerned if they did become ill?
Because of its subject matter, this is not an easy book to read but it is a good crime novel. I did suddenly click what had happened, what the truth was behind Conrad’s disappearance but not until about eighty-five percent of the way through, which I think is about the right time for the light bulb to go on. Jo Spain is a writer I am becoming increasingly impressed by and I warmly recommend this, her latest offering.
With thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for providing a review copy.