June 21, 2006

Btween The Covers

Looking to chill out this summer? Daniel Judson's latest crime thriller takes place during one of the coldest Decembers on record. If you live or rent west of the Shinnecock Canal, you may also get a different kind of shiver seeing how the Shamus award-winning novelist uses East End venues as sites for confrontations.

Not that you'd be familiar with Judson's back roads, bars, abandoned shacks and run-down rooming houses, at least one of which functions as a police-protected brothel. Indeed, the overtones of class in The Darkest Place hint at some dark truths about corruption and conspiracy that novels can get away with.

An offing here and there among the rich and famous may make for great media copy, but serial killings of innocent locals— three boys in 10 weeks — is bad for tourism and best hushed up. As one working class character notes, "Would anyone really rush to this place if the truth of what was really killing young men got out"? Hmm . . . Though dubious as social criticism and too arbitrary as melodrama, The Darkest Place, does deliver quite a punch. In fact many punches: it's one of the most violent books to come along in a while.

The story opens with the disposal of a body on a bitter cold, impenetrably dark night in Hampton Bays. Though not particularly nuanced, The Darkest Place unfolds with suspense: when and how will the next victim be tortured and killed? Will the so-called good guy survive the sadistic machinations of the bad guys? The ostensible hero and emerging prime suspect in the multiple murders is one Deacon (Deke) Kane, a likable but despondent creative writing teacher at Southampton College, who is fast drinking his way to being fired and risking detection in a loving but obsessive, adulterous affair. He's obviously being set up by the real killer.

A graduate of the college, an admired classroom teacher (when he shows up), Deke is befriended by a compassionate college administrator, but he still cannot overcome the pain of having lost his son four years earlier in a drowning accident. Feelings of guilt, helplessness and imagined horror haunt him every moment of his life – when he is not in bed with Meg. Though he has had some success as a writer, he knows he is sinking, imitating the downward spiral of his one-time literary mentor at the college, a handsome, hard-drinking novelist whose behavior finally resulted in his being let go some years earlier.

Though the title and knockout cover beach photo might suggest that "the darkest place" may be a particular location, Judson intends his novel to resonate as a trip into the heart of darkness where hate, vengeance and shame consume just about all other human impulses. "Just about" because Deke allows himself to be sucked into an inquiry about the murders of the boys, assisting a conscientious black private investigator and befriending a sad-sack "blue-chip athlete" who once got away with everything shady but is now pathetically eager to redeem himself and also prove that he is unlike his (now dead) father, the former police chief, known to have been on the take.

It's quite a collection of characters, all of them unattractive, reflecting Judson's suggestion that everyone has a darkest place and may be depraved on account of being deprived. The cast includes a smart, sexy drug addict whore who wants to be a fiction writer and a 6'5" heavy-set Riverhead sociopath who loves beating up everyone for kicks. There are other odd types as well, including a former colleague of Albert Einstein, now in his 80s, who some say may be the mastermind behind the homicides. Don't ask!

Judson's done his homework on forensics — chloride tests that determine whether fresh or salt water is found in blood around the heart, and on Xanax in alcohol as a date-rape drug — but neither prose nor theme distinguishes the novel, and despite some nail-chewing chase-and-body blow scenes toward the end, the heartwarming ending seems unearned.

The Darkest Place by Daniel Judson, St. Martin's Minotaur, 310 pp., $23.95

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