Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Book Review: THE DARKEST PLACE by Jo Spain

Author: Jo Spain
Publisher: Quercus Books
Read: October 2018
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Book Description:

'Island of the Lost was the isle's name long before the hospital was built. In winter, they say the fog falls so heavy there that you can't see your hand in front of your face. Storms rage so forcefully you can be blown from the cliffs. Once St. Christina's was built, the name took on a new meaning. Very few who went into that place ever left.'

Christmas day, and DCI Tom Reynolds receives an alarming call. A mass grave has been discovered on Oileán na Caillte, the island which housed the controversial psychiatric institution St. Christina's. The hospital has been closed for decades and onsite graves were tragically common. Reynolds thinks his adversarial boss is handing him a cold case to sideline him.

But then it transpires another body has been discovered amongst the dead - one of the doctors who went missing from the hospital in mysterious circumstances forty years ago. He appears to have been brutally murdered.

As events take a sudden turn, nothing can prepare Reynolds and his team for what they are about to discover once they arrive on the island . . .

My musings:

Everyone knows that I am a sucker for spooky atmospheric settings, so what would better fit that description than an abandoned old asylum on a remote island? It cries out “spooky”! And even though this is the fourth book in the Tom Reynolds series, and I knew I may be missing some background, I absolutely had to read it.

I really liked DCI Tom Reynolds and I could see that I probably would have benefited from reading the earlier books in the series, as there seemed to be some very interesting history concerning his relationship with his boss, as well as some love triangles happening in the investigative team. That said, Spain provides enough detail that this was no obstacle to enjoying and following the story, but I think that I would have forged a better connection to the main characters had I started the series from the beginning. But I guess it’s not too late to do so!

As the title suggests, this is a very dark and sinister story, and not for the faint of heart – and I’m not just referring to the setting. In fact, the setting was perhaps the least frightening element of the novel, and I felt that it could have been utilised more to give the story a spooky undertone (which I had been looking for), perhaps in the vein of Simone St James’ The Broken Girls. However, seeing how the events the investigation uncovers are based on real historical facts, it made for truly chilling reading!

In The Darkest Place, Tom and his team investigate the disappearance of one of St Christina’s leading psychiatrists, whose remains have recently been discovered in a mass grave containing countless deceased patients who had been incarcerated in the asylum. Seeing that the man disappeared without a trace forty years ago, abandoning his wife and kids without warning, foul play is suspected. As the investigative team descend on the mist-shrouded island, they soon discover that some of the locals are very tight-lipped about the asylum and events surrounding it. A diary, found by the wife of the missing doctor amongst his personal effects, suggests that patients were mistreated, and subjected to cruel treatment regimens, some of which were common practice in the earlier years of the asylum. Trigger warning – some of the treatments described were truly hair-raising, and it was only due to the fact that the characters of the patients are only ever referred to through the POVs of the diary entries and witness accounts– and therefore stay somewhat remote – that the details of the “treatments” did not follow me into my worst nightmares!

Jo Spain paints a bleak and cruel picture of the treatment of the mentally ill and other undesirables in Ireland’s past. As shocking are the attempts by people to hide the truth about the atrocities committed, even in our times, when we have moved on to more humane and effective treatment methods. Incorporated into a present-day murder mystery, the events describe remain somewhat shrouded in mystery, which allows the reader to stay disconnected from the more horrible happenings. Personally, even though I can see how it all ties into the main mystery element, this disconnection took a bit of the emotional impact away for. I would have loved to get a perspective from one of the patients, in whichever form this may have taken – even from a survivor recounting their experiences.


All in all, a solid police procedural investigating a cold case anchored in one of Ireland’s dark chapters in history. Whilst it did not give me the same creepy vibes as other books with similar themes, such as the aforementioned book The Broken Girls, I found it to be an engaging read that kept me interested (and somewhat horrified) to the end.

Thank you to Netgalley and Quercus Books for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

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