In bleak midwinter, the people of Shipcott are shocked by the murder of an elderly woman in her bed. As snow cuts off the village, local policeman Jonas Holly is torn between catching a brutal killer and protecting his vulnerable wife, Lucy.
When the inquiry is commandeered by an abrasive senior detective, Jonas finds himself derided by his colleagues and ashamed to admit to Lucy that he’s been sidelined. It seems his first murder investigation may be over before it’s begun. But when he receives a series of increasingly sinister anonymous notes, Jonas is thrust back into the center of the case. Someone in the village is taunting him, blaming him for the tragedy. Someone thinks he’s not doing his job; someone seems to know every move he makes. And soon Jonas has to ask: Who’s hunting who?
THE SOUNDS OF THE HOSPITAL CAME BACK TO LUCY MUFFLED AND from far away. She became aware of a big hand holding hers—tough, dry, and warm.
Jonas, she thought with a twist of guilt.
Stiffly she moved her head and opened her eyes, expecting to read worry, relief—even anger—in his eyes.
Instead, for one crazy moment, she found she had been sucked through a tear in time, and that she was married to a small boy wearing a look of such terror on his face that she flinched and clutched at his hand as if he were the one who was falling.
Her throat burned and the word came out as a harsh caw, but it aged him like a slap in the face and immediately his eyes filled with all those emotions she’d expected to see when she first looked up at him—even the anger.
Lucy didn’t care. She brimmed with tears. Jonas held her in his arms—a man again—and she overflowed into the crook of his elbow while he bent over her and said quiet, tender things into her hair.
“I didn’t mean it,” she sobbed, but she couldn’t even understand her own muffled words.
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This reading group guide forDarkside includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Belinda Bauer. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
A gripping novel of suspense, Darkside transports readers to a small English village where one police constable, Jonas Holly, is tasked with looking out for the welfare of the entire community. When a paralyzed woman is brutally murdered, and an outside police force led by an aggressive detective arrives in Shipcott, Jonas is plagued with internal doubts. The murders continue, and Jonas’s faith in his own abilities is severely strained. His only supporter is his wife, Lucy, who is victim to a disease that is laying waste to her body. When the town spirals into paranoia, Jonas must confront his own demons and the fears of the village, as he struggles to stop the violence and gain control over his life.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Darkside is a dark, suspenseful novel with a tense atmosphere. Discuss some of the devices Bauer uses throughout the novel to increase the feeling of suspense for the reader and to gradually build up to the climactic scene.
2. The geography of the village of Shipcott and the land surrounding it play a large role in the novel. The author writes, “The people here lived in the troughs. . . their lives were properly conducted in the folds and creases of Exmoor, out of the view of prying eyes.” (p. 7) Discuss how the land itself, and the way the villagers interact with it, contributes to the novel’s tone and plot.
3. On page 11, readers learn what makes Detective Marvel tick. With twenty-five years of experience and a stubborn nature, he is nevertheless devoted to his job. What do we learn about him through his interior monologue, and how does it set the stage for his actions to come?
4. Lucy, Jonas’s wife, is afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis, and spends their days confined to her house. One of her passions is watching horror movies, and she does so out of “some need to test herself through horror.” (p. 33) Discuss Lucy’s love of horror films. Do you understand her reasons for watching them?
5. In the chapter “Twenty Days,” Marvel is alone in Margaret Priddy’s house when he hears someone trying to get in. How did you perceive Marvel’s reaction and the way he deals with his own fear, especially when he learns who it was at the door? What does this scene tell us about Marvel and Jonas?
6. After Jonas finds the body of Mrs. Marsh he is told to take the day off, so he retreats to the Red Lion pub. Once there, he receives a mysterious note that says, “Do your job, crybaby.” (p. 103) Why does this note affect Jonas so deeply?
7. Animals are featured throughout Darkside, and their appearance often signals a shift in the story and in Jonas’ emotions. Discuss the role that the various animals in the novel play, and the meaning they hold for Jonas—from the pony Jonas hits with the car, to the Trewell’s rescued dog, to the ewe Jonas frees, and finally, the memory of Taffy.
8. In the chapter “Ten Days,” we gain insight into Lucy’s view of Jonas. How does Lucy characterize her husband? Who is the more vulnerable of the two and why?
9. In the chapter “Two Days,” Lucy lodges an official complaint against Detective Marvel with DS Reynolds, who is practically gleeful at the opportunity. Do you agree with the plan Reynolds creates, and how long it takes him to expose Marvel’s behavior?
10. In the chapter “One Day,” Jonas arrives home to discover a visitor for Lucy. What is the purpose of the visit and why is it so devastating to Jonas? Do you agree with Lucy’s decision?
11. Steven Lamb bursts in on Jonas and Lucy during their heated argument in “One Day.” What role does Steven serve here? How is his unique past experience significant to the present scene?
12. Do you think Marvel conducted an effective investigation? Was there any way he could have possibly caught the killer before it was too late?
13. What are your thoughts about the twist at the end of Darkside? Were there any clues that gave you an idea of the truth before it was unveiled to the reader?
14. On page 280, Jonas tells Lucy “He’s the protector.” How does the theme of protection echo throughout the novel?
15. Do you agree with the choices Jonas has made for himself by the end of the novel, and those that were made for him? How would you do things differently if you were Jonas?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Lucy loves horror movies, and watches them as a way to comfort herself. As a group, discuss the movies you find comforting, and screen a movie, or several scenes from different movies, during your meeting.
In the age of the internet and satellite television, do you think places like Shipcott, with its terrible cell phone reception, are an endangered species? Will a village like Shipcott exist in ten years time?
Goodness yes! My boyfriend lives close to a city and still has to make all his cell phone calls standing halfway up the stairs! Cell phone reception is terribly variable (in the UK at least) and Exmoor's topography presents a difficult terrain which can't be overcome simply by erecting lots of phone masts because of planning laws. I think some places are always going to be beyond technology. I hope so, anyway; I hate being a slave to my phone.
Steven Lamb, the main character from your first novel, Blacklands, plays a small role in Darkside. Why did you decide to include him in this book?
I really liked Steven and it seemed the readers of Blacklands did too. I wanted to see how he was getting along; I wanted to know that he was all right after all the traumas he went through in my first book. I'm enjoying watching him grow up, knowing that this thing has happened to him at an early age and seeing how it affects him now. He's doing pretty well.
How did you come up with the character of Lucy? Did you do research to better understand her state of mind and condition?
I had a friend who was diagnosed with MS at 28. Until then I thought it was an old person's disease but apparently that's the average age of diagnosis. So I really wanted to understand what it might be like to be struck down so young—to go from being an athlete and a lover to being crippled—within a few years. I did quite a bit of research about MS; the most valuable came from various blogs which sufferers were writing to share their struggle with others in the same situation. It was very sad, but I wanted Lucy to be a strong, uplifting character. In Darkside the killer targets vulnerable people and I felt it was important to show how strong Lucy still is, despite her illness. I hope readers get a sense of someone who has been robbed of everything they thought they were ever going to have—and still comes out fighting.
Do you feel the same way about horror films as Lucy does? If not, was there a passion of your own that you found inspiration in for Lucy’s character?
Horror films do scare me and I DO always imagine what I would do if I found myself in that situation! I do that a lot though—not just while watching movies. I think that “What would I do?” is the essence of building good characters because it forces you under the skin of another person.
Was it challenging to write in the voice of Jonas? How do you get into the minds of your characters?
No, Jonas was easy to write. I felt I knew him right from the outset—this person who has to be strong for the wife he loves, even while his world is falling apart around him. I felt bad piling on the pressure because he doesn't deserve it. Just as with all my characters, I have to be able to feel what they are feeling—even if they're only on the page for a few lines. That way I hope I invest my characters with a real life force. My characters don't always do what's convenient for the plot or what's easiest for the hero to deal with. It's a cliché but characters really DO sometimes say or do things which even I don't expect. For instance in Darkside, the milkman, Will Bishop leaves threatening notes for his customers who don't pay. That was never in my head until the moment I wrote it on the page, but it seemed so right for that character. And DI Marvel was a pleasure to write because he's just so malicious. He says and does things I would never think of myself.
Did you find it any easier writing your second book than your first? Has the process of writing novels changed for you now that you’ve written two?
Writing the second book, Darkside was a million times harder than Blacklands, which was a joy from beginning to end. I knew what the story of Darkside was supposed to be but I had no real idea of how to execute a crime novel—or even whether this particular plot was going to be possible. So I just bumbled and floundered and concentrated on why the characters behaved the way they did—and all of a sudden things started to make sense to me. It was quite a frightening experience, but also a very rewarding once it started to fall into place. The third book was less shambolic, so maybe each one will be a different experience. The only common thread seems to be that I have terrible nightmares when I'm doing my best work. I've always had very vivid bad dreams and rarely good ones, but now that I write crime, at least they serve a purpose.
Can you tell us about what you’re writing next? Do you plan to remain in Shipcott for your next novel?
Yes, the third book is the final one set in Shipcott. It weaves some of the characters and threads of both Blacklands and Darkside together and although it is also a standalone book, I hope it will bring a sense of closure to all three. I am about to start writing my fourth book, which will be a bit of a departure but I'm very excited about it.
What are you reading now?
For research I'm reading a non-fiction book called Down Among the Dead Men by Michelle Williams. I'm slow and hardly have ever time to read fiction but I do have The Man Who Fell To Earth waiting in the wings. I'm a sucker for sci-fi and I always loved the movie, plus the book is about three pages long, so I have a chance of finishing it before the year's out!
You previously worked as a journalist and a screenwriter. When did you first decide you wanted to write for a living? How did you make the decision to try your hand at fiction?
I never really thought about fiction at all until I saw a run of lousy movies one summer and thought I could do better. I couldn't, of course, but writing my first screenplay set me on the path to finally writing fiction. I switched from films to books simply because it was so hard to get a movie made and I felt like a fake every time I said I was a writer. I wanted to at least have something on paper to show my mother!
On your website, you explain, “So, I write crime, but really I just write people.” Can you expand more on this thought?
Yes, I'm more interested in people's reactions to crime than the crime itself. I don't really care whodunit, but I do care about why and what the consequences might be for other people. What I try to do is think about a person in a situation or with a dilemma that interests me, and then use crime like a spotlight to shine on them so their responses are thrown into relief. The crime itself is almost incidental; it might be mass murder, it might be failure to return a library book—as long as it allows me to explore my characters I don't mind. And I'm sure my publishers will embrace my next rip-roaring murder novel: Dewey Decimated.
Belinda Bauer grew up in England and South Africa. She has worked as a journalist and screenwriter, and her script The Locker Room earned her the Carl Foreman/Bafta Award for Young British Screenwriters, an award that was presented to her by Sidney Poitier. She was a runner-up in the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition for “Mysterious Ways,” about a girl stranded on a desert island with 30,000 Bibles. Belinda now lives in Wales. Her latest novel, Snap, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
“Given the shallow pool of prospective victims and suspects, it takes real skill to write a plausible whodunit about an undetected serial killer running amok in an English village. . . . Set against a landscape that would tax anyone’s sanity, Bauer’s grim tale deploys a morbid wit that’s positively wicked.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Bauer joins such contemporary masters of psychological suspense as Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters with her twisted and tricky second novel . . . The shattering conclusion pulls no punches and will leave many readers stunned, even as they realize how everything fits together.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Another riveting psychological thriller. . . . suffused with pitch-black atmosphere, Bauer’s novel keeps readers guessing until the deliciously unsettling conclusion. No sophomore slump here—fans of Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters would do well to make room on their shelves for Bauer.”—Library Journal (starred review)
"Like Minette Walters, Bauer excels at depicting the psychology behind the crimes, and she’s not afraid to take some bold risks with her plotline. Melding the classic horror setting of a small, rural town with an atmosphere of creeping dread, this is sure to appeal to both crime-fiction and horror fans."— Booklist
“Genteel and suspenseful . . . a most promising career.”—Kirkus Reviews
"Probably the most shocking ending you’ll read this year. Belinda Bauer is the most disturbing new talent around."—Val McDermid
“In her murky tale, Bauer plunges into the realm of the psyche, a brilliant twist . . . adding the final flourish to a nightmarish story where a young woman forfeits a bright future to the ravages of a particularly cruel disease, a murderer bides his time, and the angry diatribes of an investigator are met with shuttered windows and locked doors.”—CurledUp.com
“Belinda Bauer won the CWA Gold Dagger for her first crime novel, Blacklands, and she’s produced a barnstorming follow-up with Darkside . . . Bold, mordant compassionate, Darkside confirms Bauer’s reputation as a significant new talent.”—The Sunday Times (UK)
"Tense and imaginative."—Guardian (UK)
“Happily the dark horse is not a one-trick pony . . . [Darkside] is even more accomplished [than Blacklands]. . . . depicted with a wit and warmth that make the macabre bits seem all the more horrible.”—The Daily Telegraph (London)
"Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands caused the hearts of hardened reviewers to flip a beat . . . Happily for the genre, Darkside shows she can do it again . . . Tension mounts with extraordinary yet credible narrative twists. As in her previous book, Bauer takes astonishing risks but – like a brilliant ski-jumper – arcs down to the perfect landing."—Independent (UK)
"She’s a thriller queen . . . hailed as the woman most likely to lead the fightback against the Scandinavian crime-wave . . . It’s an extraordinary piece of writing . . . with a stunning denouement . . . The result is one of the most gripping whodunnits you’ll read in 2011."—Sunday Times Culture Magazine (UK)
"Outstandingly good . . . An unusually gripping tale, with places and people vividly evoked and an unguessable . . . conclusion."—Literary Review (UK)
"Second novel syndrome may be a recognised condition but it is not something that affects Belinda Bauer. I would press [Darkside] one on anyone who loves Kate Atkinson, Bauer really is that good . . . Another cracking crime novel."—Alice O'Keefe, The Bookseller (UK)
"[Darkside] will appeal to everyone who loves the classic British mystery . . . . An enthralling read."—The Times (South Africa)
“A riveting psychological thriller which will have you guessing to the very end.”—The Mercury (South Africa)
"Bauer perfectly captures the charm and potential creepiness of the rolling moors and deathly fogs and bogs."—Argus Weekend (South Africa)
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