The Dark Clue: A Novel of Suspense

by James Wilson

Whether it is literary bravery or intellectual arrogance, James
Wilson's debut novel tackles a mighty subject. Borrowing two
characters, Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe, from Victorian
novelist Wilkie Collins, he also centers the story around a real
life figure, J. M. W. Turner, one of England's greatest

THE DARK CLUE is fictional, but much of its storyline is based on
what little is known about the artist's life. The choice of Walter
and his sister-in-law Marian, the two main characters in Collins's
THE WOMAN IN WHITE, is interesting, but the inspiration for it
never surfaces. It is not unusual for contemporary authors to
borrow characters from the classics, but this seems an odd choice.
Most readers will not be familiar with them, nor will they have
such an extensive knowledge of the painter whose supposed biography
fuels this story.


Despite the overwhelming abundance of information, it is an
extremely intelligent and authentic novel in the Victorian manner,
the language superbly echoing the time period. Walter is introduced
by Marian to Lady Eastlake, an intellectual socialite, who
persuades him to attempt a biography of the infamous painter, J. M.
W. Turner. An artist himself, Walter is keen on doing so, and the
main motive is to refute the ugly truth being offered up by another
biographer named Thornbury. However, Hartright soon realizes that
there is more to Turner's life than meets the eye.


Thus begins the trail of clues that leads both Marian and Walter to
the slums and social parlours of London. Wilson's writing is very
detailed and marvelously atmospheric. There are numerous characters
who enter the picture and they each have a different story
concerning the notoriously private Turner. The story of his life
becomes more sordid and confusing as the novel labors onward. And
it does labor. After the reader's initial interest is piqued, the
book begins to take a different turn. Hartright begins to assume
the supposed identity of Turner himself, neglecting his morals,
values, and intense love for his wife and children. When Marian
begins to worry about him and does her own investigative work,
trying to understand the past life of Turner and the changing life
of her brother-in-law, she soon becomes a victim of Walter's moral
decline as well.

However, our hero descends into perversion far too easily. Argument
could be made that Walter was already on the precipice of complete
moral breakdown, but there is no early evidence, primarily because
the character belongs to another author of a different

Wilson's decision to use the journals and letters of both
characters makes it difficult to remember from whose point of view
the story is being told. It creates a sense that the reader is
doing a bit of the detective work as well. THE DARK CLUE also
fluctuates in its thrill. The intelligence of Wilson's writing is
awesome, but it overpowers the story itself. Art critics may find
some merit in his analysis of Turner's work, but the reader will
grow frantic unless he or she has a working knowledge of the
Regency art world. Having read THE WOMAN IN WHITE, or seen its
television interpretation on PBS, will also be of some value to the

The novel has its superb moments and James Wilson is, without a
doubt, an intelligent, perceptive and poetic writer. The research
is correct, but it is not all encompassing. Lacking facts, Wilson
can only hint at Turner's private life, leaving the reader to
wonder what Walter Hartright saw in the basement.

Reviewed by Lorretta Ruggiero on January 21, 2011

The Dark Clue: A Novel of Suspense
by James Wilson

  • Publication Date: January 6, 2003
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802139299
  • ISBN-13: 9780802139290