David Mark is known in British circles as one of crime journalism’s better reporters. His occupation at least in part accounts for the fact that THE DARK WINTER, his debut novel, is a remarkably confident and sure-footed narrative that is solidly built on equal elements of sharp character development and intriguing plotting.
Aector (the name is the Scottish spelling of “Hector”) McAvoy is a detective sergeant for the Humberside police in the northern England area of Kingston upon Hull. He is a large, imposing figure, the type who can usually put an end to trouble, if not prevent it from starting altogether, thanks to his looming appearance. McAvoy’s intimidating size belies a gentle nature, one that is more inclined toward mental puzzles than physical confrontation. In some ways, he is the antithesis of the driven cop one often encounters in crime fiction; McAvoy, even when on the job, would rather be at home, enjoying the company of his wife (who is pregnant) and playing with his preschool-age son.
"2012 has been an excellent year for British crime fiction, and it appears with the publication of THE DARK WINTER that some of the best has been saved for the very last. More of Mark and his protagonist are promised for future encounters, and those who read this fine and impressive debut will want to see that promise kept."
Still, McAvoy tends to be where the action is, though more by accident than by design. Quiet if occasionally snarky rumors about him abound, including one concerning a serious injury that he reportedly sustained in the line of duty while bringing down a crooked cop and serial killer. Then, of course, there is the case that opens THE DARK WINTER, the first drop of bread down a quickly travelled road that cries out to be traversed in one sitting.
That opening case is the murder of a young woman at a church. McAvoy literally stumbles into the incident and narrowly misses being injured himself at the hands of the mysterious assailant, a man who carries out the terrible deed with careful deliberation but with (of all things) tears in his eyes. Shortly thereafter, McAvoy is tasked with a bereavement visit to notify a woman of the discovery of her elderly brother in a lifeboat off the coast of Iceland. McAvoy soon discovers an eerie similarity between the two somewhat dissimilar occurrences. Both victims had previously survived tragic incidents relatively similar to those that ultimately took their lives. When a third victim is discovered, burned beyond recognition, McAvoy is convinced that a serial murderer is at work. His conclusions are derided by his fellow officers, who see no connection at all between the deaths, other than in his imagination. As much as he prefers his domestic life to his professional one, McAvoy is driven by a finely honed sense of right and wrong and a desire to see that justice is done.
At the same time, David Mark has surrounded McAvoy with a fine set of characters who, each in their own way, are as quirky and unusual as McAvoy himself. Trish Pharaoh (I love that name) is McAvoy's superior officer, a rough edge who is not so jaded as to miss that she has a rough jewel in her charge who needs to follow his own lead. McAvoy’s wife is intriguing as well; she is a bit off of the normal spot, but in a good way. Then there are the characters who McAvoy encounters along the way --- from relatives of the victims to witnesses --- each and all of whom have a memorable tic or unusual characteristic or two. McAvoy rides these encounters to a stirring conclusion; vociferous readers of crime fiction may figure out the “who” of this mystery, but the “why” will keep them reading without stopping.
2012 has been an excellent year for British crime fiction, and it appears with the publication of THE DARK WINTER that some of the best has been saved for the very last. More of Mark and his protagonist are promised for future encounters, and those who read this fine and impressive debut will want to see that promise kept.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 14, 2012