The Dark Room (Minette Walters)

This book gave my brain cells a real work out. The first page is an attention grabber – two children having underage sex, the girl sullenly pulling up her knickers while taunting the boy’s inability to last more than three minutes. But this fun opening is not the real plot dynamic: a woman wakes up in a hospital with amnesia and is told she tried to kill herself. Also, her friend and her fiance are dead. Did she kill them, or is she being framed? You have to be very alert reading this book, as events are presented out of sequence, and times and dates of actions are important. Who is lying and who is telling the truth? It kept me guessing right up until the end. This is a psychological thriller, where you are invited to be a] the protagonist b] the police inspector and c] the protagonist’s psychiatrist. Got it?

All are trying to piece together the answer to a key question: Did the protagonist (an amnesiac) kill two, perhaps three, people? As with any of the three perspectives, the information offered the reader is fragmentary. As with real life, there are numerous possible suspects besides the protagonist, and each has a reason not to be fully disclosing with what information they know; each has motives to protect someone who might be the killer. A lot of people have said this is not their favourite Minette Walters book, or they found it too complicated, overly plotted, too fragmented. It is weirdly repetitive and our heroine, with the unpleasant nickname of “Jinx”, did try my patience. Plus the mystery is overplotted. There are too many characters to keep straight and too many people lying so you, as the reader, never know what is going on either. I felt like someone had locked me in a dark room.

The entire book devolves into nothing but conversations and question and answer sessions whether it’s between Jinx and the police or Jinx and her doctor or Jinx and another patient or her half-brothers.But I think this is what makes this book a stellar example of Walter’s craft: as readers, we are invited to truly experience – in structure as well as narrative – what it is like to be at the centre of a murder investigation. The characters are not candy-coated, not necessarily likeable, not necessarily trustworthy. This isn’t the kind of fiction where you can imagine yourself as hero or heroine. This is a book that shows you how baffling, frustrating, scary and downright infuriating murder-solving can be. While this is over 400 pages, you don’t notice the length thanks to the multiple POVs and all that is going on. I kept coming up with possible theories of “whodunnit” only to groan to my dog when it was finally revealed. I never guessed it was that person so I give full credit to the author for keeping me in suspense.

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