Daniel Judson made an auspicious debut in 2002, publishing both THE BONE ORCHARD and THE POISONED ROSE to much critical adulation and introducing a hardscrabble private investigator named Mac MacManus. Four years later Judson has returned with THE DARKEST PLACE, and the potential and promise that his previous work simultaneously raised and met are now surpassed.
As its title portends, THE DARKEST PLACE is a journey into the unlit places of the soul, the sordid and unfilled locations to which sane people never so much as glance. Deacon Kane, a visiting lecturer of Humanities at Southampton College, is on a downward spiral due to the accidental drowning of his son and the subsequent breakup of his marriage. Kane is hell-bent on self-destruction, fueling his journey with alcohol while engaging in a pointless and potentially dangerous affair with a local artiste. It is all he can do to make it to his classroom, a task he fails to accomplish more often than not.
Kane's life is further complicated when he finds himself implicated in a series of drowning deaths involving young men in the community. The deaths appear at first to be accidental, occasioned by youthful indiscretion and drunkenness, or perhaps suicide. But when the third drowning involves one of Kane's students, the police begin investigating the lecturer himself, who slowly comes to the realization that he is being deliberately implicated in these deaths.
An enigmatic PI firm tries to help Kane even as it investigates him, but it is ultimately Kane's own penchant for attracting and being attracted to trouble that puts him on a collision course with mortal danger. All the while, Judson's narrative skills propel the reader ever forward while contemporaneously forcing a careful reading. One simply cannot guess what will happen next, and though the event may be heartbreaking, there is simply no way to proceed but toward it. For example, about two-thirds of the way through the book Judson describes an occurrence with excruciatingly painful yet compelling clarity --- so compelling in fact that I honestly believe that if I had been in a burning building while reading it, I would have not moved until I completed the four or so pages over which the event is described. I won't tell you what it is, but it takes place in a parking lot. You'll know it when you get there.
THE DARKEST PLACE is a classic work, oddly evocative of James Crumley's THE LAST GOOD KISS without resembling it in the slightest. Very highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 1, 2007