The padded envelope fell to the floor with the intensity of a coffin lid closing for the last time. I was used to getting books in the post, in a town like this; everyone wanted their book reviewed, but something about this felt different. I tore into the envelope like a starving street urchin, relishing the familiar sent of newly pressed paper, & gazed down at the latest offering. Hello Darkness, the name already had me hooked, mysterious & inquisitive. The author, Anthony McGowan was one I knew already. He had a reputation for tough, powerful novels. I was curious to say the least, & the first clue grabbed on the first page like an amorous dame & refused to let go…
OKAY, I like the noir style, alright?! I promise I’ll be a normal reviewer from here on out, but I had to get that off my chest.
Johnny Middleton is a loner, a high school student with a troubled past, & a sarcastic streak a mile wide. Ever since his “incident” required him to be on medication to deal with hallucinations, he’s known throughout the school as the Psycho Kid. When he winds up as Mr. Wrong-Place-Wrong-Time, overhearing the murder of the school’s stick insect collection, he’s the obvious first suspect – with his mental health history, animal cruelty doesn’t seem far behind. He’s innocent, though, & he manages to beg the tyrannical deputy head The Shank (Aka Mr. Shankley) to give him four days to find the real culprit, or he’s nailing the crime on Johnny, & cancelling the school play because of it. And that won’t make Johnny Middleton a popular boy. As other members of the school pet pool start turning up murdered, Johnny is sure he’s being set up, he’s the fall guy for someone else’s wicked plan, but who? What does anyone have to gain by murdering insects & rodents? Johnny doesn’t know, but he’s determined to get to the core of this mystery, & blow the whole thing wide open, but the clues are muddled, & he can’t tell friend from foe… And he’s not taking his medication anymore.
I genuinely went into Hello Darkness totally unprepared, with no idea what I was expecting. From the title, & the description of brutal murder, I expected some kind of Teen horror novel, something in the vein of Darren Shan. However, I was delighted as the narrative unfolded to make way for a proper 40’s style noir detective thriller. It’s a really rare style of writing that I absolutely adore, & I could definitely do with reading more of it in the Teen/Young Adult market. It’s a genre that lends itself to fast, paced writing, with twists & turns, as well as a good sense of wit & dry humour about it.
Our protagonist in the book, Johnny Middleton, is a classic a classic noir anti-hero, & brilliantly written by someone who clearly loves the Detective style. His inner monologue is rife with brilliant metaphors & similes, each one successful in putting a wry smile on my face, & his self-deprecating, sarcasm is the perfect sense of black humour for the murderous plotline of the novel. The other characters follow similarly perfectly observed noir stereotypes, from the spurned lover of Ling Mei to the mysterious Femme Fatale Zofia, they’re all brilliantly sympathetic, or antagonistic to Johnny’s mission, throwing out red herrings & twisted crossword clues. The School is as much a character in the story as its inhabitants too, & it’s a smoky, mysterious & dilapidated setting that yawns around the character’s actions, uncaring but threatening to swallow them into oblivion. The descriptions of the settings & the lurking dangers throughout create a great sense of unease & tension wherever our lead character goes. The final big character point I really loved about the book was Johnny’s mysterious mental health issues. They’re never quite touched upon, but add a sense of concern & urgency to his investigation, as well as an uneasy sense that it could all be just a manifestation of his mind, that none of it is really happening the way he sees it. It gives the whole novel a feeling of duality, that maybe… Just maybe, there are two stories being told simultaneously here, but we’re only getting Middleton’s perspective.
The plot itself is a gripping whodunit, & as I said, the writing style is a fantastic collection of hilarious similes & unique metaphors that showcase Anthony’s skilful wit & skilful wordplay. The way the story is narrated is delightful, really keeping the reader guessing until the very last page. AND WHAT A LAST PAGE! A brilliantly abrupt, touching ending that really had my heart pounding in my chest with the tension.
A really unique book, with a truly fun style, Hello Darkness is due out on the 5th of September, & I urge you to pick it up at your local bookshop!