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The Dark Room: Review by Mairead Hearne

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‘It was as if the music lifted him from the dark room of his mind and lit everything up.’
– The Dark Room

The Dark Room by Sam Blake is described as ‘a pacey and thrilling tale.’ Set in a remote fictional location in West Cork it is an homage to Sam Blake’s (aka Vanessa Fox O’ Loughlin) passion for Daphne du Maurier’s writing, in particular Rebecca and also the ‘closed room’ mystery one associates with an Agatha Christie novel.

Hare’s Landing is on a wild and isolated part of West Cork near the sea and is where a new luxurious country house has just been opened to guests after major renovations. It is a labour of love for its owners, Bronagh and Leo, and they decide to test the waters after Christmas in the hope of receiving a few guests, ones who are brave enough to explore the coastline and stunning scenery on the Wild Atlantic Way in January. Caroline Kelly and Rachel Lambert are the first two guests, with Caroline booked into the boathouse, a separate lodging off the hotel, and Rachel booking into the hotel itself. Neither know each other but after a few days, as their situations change somewhat, they become friends as they find themselves caught up in something very ominous.

Caroline Kelly, originally from Dublin, is a high-flying crime reporter now living in New York. After a work incident that could potentially lead to a career destroying lawsuit, Caroline needs time to breathe, to get away from the pressure she finds herself under. As a child her family used to holiday in West Cork so Caroline does an online search looking for a secluded location where she can find calm. On discovering Hare’s Landing Caroline is taken aback by the beauty of the accommodation and, with the mention of the intermittent internet access, Caroline is sold. Isolation, with peace and quiet, and the perfect excuse not to be online, would be just the tonic to put her life into perspective.

Rachel Lambert, also originally from Dublin, is a location scout working in London with her film producer partner, Hunter and their ex-police dog, Jasper. On the same day, their house boat is broken into and Hunter is involved in an accident on his bike, resulting in injuries that require a hospital stay. Initially thought to be a coincidence, Rachel and Hunter soon realise there is more to these incidents. Hunter had been working on a documentary focusing on the homeless and one of the men he was interviewing has disappeared. Alfie Bowes was a gentleman, a man with obvious trauma in his life. He lived on the streets with his precious violin, hence the nickname Alfie Bowes. No one has ever known his story…until now. When Alfie’s body is discovered, following a fire in his tent on the streets, Hunter asks Rachel to follow up on Alfie’s story, to see what she can uncover. Alfie had mentioned a place called Hare’s Landing to Hunter leading Rachel to West Cork and the country home where Caroline Kelly had just checked into in recent days.

Rachel and Caroline immediately bond, being the only company for each other in this secluded hotel. When Rachel fills Caroline in on her reason for being there Caroline gets excited with the mysterious aspect and is immediately enthralled. With her ability to dig out a story as a crime reporter and Rachel’s eye for detail, they join forces in trying to uncover Alfie Bowe’s history. But they face one huge obstacle and that is the lack of mobile cover and internet availability in situ. Resorting to old style investigative techniques, the duo soon realise that there is a very troubling history to Hare’s Landing. The deeper they dig, the more tragedy they uncover.

The Dark Room contains many elements of an old fashioned mystery but with a more modern twist. With an ode to Mrs Danvers from Rebecca, Mrs Travers is an employee at Hare’s Landing. Adopting similar traits, chiefly a coldness emanating from her every pore, she is not very welcoming of strangers. Mrs Travers has worked in some form or other on the property over the years. She is a woman who knows everything, who sees everything, who remembers everything.

There is also a supernatural aspect to The Dark Room. It is not a main plotline but it’s presence is felt, with unusual smells, music and the occasional sound of a door banging as scenes play out. Some of you may know that a hare in Ireland is not just a fluffy wildlife animal or associated with the name of a West Cork country house. In Irish folklore ‘the hare is also often associated with the Otherworld (Aos Si) community whose world was reached through mists, hills, lakes, ponds, wetland areas, caves, ancient burial sites, cairns and mounds.’ Are you feeling spooked?

As threads begin to unravel, Caroline and Rachel find themselves on very shaky ground. They have awakened something at Hare’s Landing, something that cannot be locked away. A secret is waiting to be found…..

The setting of Hare’s Landing is perfect for The Dark Room in a remote corner of West Cork. The weather is appropriately stormy for January and, as the wind blows and the rain lashes down, Rachel and Caroline become very much caught up in their investigation. But, when events take a nasty turn and the police become involved, the two become embroiled in something far bigger and more dangerous than either imagined. Caroline’s peaceful break is shattered and Rachel fears for their safety. What secrets are hidden in Hare’s Landing? Who is behind the treachery and what does a homeless man, now dead, have to do with it all?

A by-the-way moment – during one piece of dialogue between the police and Rachel Lambert there is a vague mention of a certain kick-boxing champion. If you have read the Cat Connolly series by Sam Blake this will make sense. If you haven’t, not to worry, it has no bearing on the story. Just a little fun input from the author I think!

The Dark Room ticks all the boxes for a highly-engaging cosy winter mystery. With plenty of plot threads running throughout it could easily have gotten over complex, but, with a slow reveal, Sam Blake ties them all up nicely, resulting in a very satisfying conclusion. I really enjoyed the fact that Sam Blake incorporated her own personal passion for Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, the supernatural and Agatha Christie into the story. An interesting fact for those of you who are Rebecca fans, you may have spotted that Sam Blake names Rachel’s dog Jasper. This is in dedication to Maxim de Winter’s dog of the same name!

With lush descriptions, the perfect location and a selection of wonderful characters, The Dark Room is another sure fire bestseller for Sam Blake. Perfect lockdown reading…

(c) Mairead Hearne Book Blogger at SwirlandThread

The Sunday Times 31 Jan 2021, Overall Top 10 Irish Bestsellers across all categories

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