Monday, September 3, 2012

Review: A Deeper Darkness by J.T. Ellison

A Deeper Darkness
Written by J.T. Ellison

Published: 2012

Synopsis:As a medical examiner, Samantha Owens knows her job is to make a certain sense of death with crisp methodology and precision instruments.But the day the Tennessee floods took her husband and children, the light vanished from Sam's life. She has been pulled into a suffocating grief no amount of workaholic ardor can penetrate—until she receives a peculiar call from Washington, D.C. On the other end of the line is an old boyfriend's mother, asking Sam to do a second autopsy on her son. Eddie Donovan is officially the victim of a vicious car jacking, but under Sam's sharp eye the forensics tell a darker story. The ex-Ranger was murdered, though not for his car.


In some ways A Deeper Darkness is several books in one. The first book is a heart-wrenching look at a wife and mother who survived her family's death in a sudden and unexpected flood. The career she'd always loved is suddenly hollow, and to cope with her loss she's hardened herself almost to the point of no-return and developed OCD tendencies that she struggles to hide from the people around her. The second book is an honest examination of life as the spouse or family member of a war veteran, and the complexities that are added to the relationship when they return home from Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. The third story is a crime mystery looking into the death of an ex-ranger, and slowly piecing together a much larger and more insidious case. Separately they'd be interesting stories but something that's been done before, entwined together however, the result is a multi-faceted book that interested me from different fronts and was easy to consume from start to finish.

When we first meet Samantha Owens she's calm, in control and thinking fondly of the ordered, organised events that are to unfold during the day in her autopsy lab. Just as an impression of who this woman is begins to form everything begins to come apart at the seams when it's revealed that one of the bodies about to be delivered drowned. With that brief little sentence you quickly come to realise how damaged Samantha is. All of that structure at the initial introduction was simply a well fortified wall that's only job is to keep her upright until she can make it back to the privacy of her home where she is free to fall apart in whatever way she chooses. However it's clear that structures and walls and order have long been a mainstay in her life. She's scientific, pragmatic, sensible and logical, things which are emphasised in flashbacks, internal narration and her reactions to unexpected questions or advances. When it comes to people Samantha loves though, her rationality flies right out the window.Time and time again Samantha seethes with anger and disappointment when people throw up roadblocks and halt her determined effort to get to the bottom of Eddie's death. Not that they're wrong to do so, she is simply a medical examiner - she's not qualified to take part in a criminal investigation and she probably shouldn't even be told much of the information about the case - but there's a passion and fire that motivates her and clashes dramatically with the cold scientific rigor she regularly embodies. The stress and heartache that comes from investigating your first love's murder so soon after the death of your family is an important component in Samantha's character - it leaves her vulnerable and likeable, and makes her focused attempts to persevere through the pain all the more inspiring. All this being said, I wasn't the biggest fan of Samantha. At times I found her cold, obnoxious, condescending and self-involved and I highly doubt that if I met her i'd have anything to say to her that didn't revolve around the weather. But this just cemented the reality of her character - no one's perfect after all.

I won't dedicate as much time to the other characters in the book, but while most of them were well fleshed out, none had the same life as Samantha. Some were, understandably, a little cardboard-y, serving mostly as markers to move the mystery and the plot along, but even the characters like Detective Darren Fletcher (equal parts cynical, protective and kind) and his better natured partner Detective Lonny Hart who I adored felt a little...lacking compared to the focus that had been put into Samantha. This unbalance was, I think, the main reason I really detested the character of Eddie’s wife, Susan. Though I’m sure we were supposed to believe that her catty remarks and overly snobby attitude was a reaction to the sudden death of her husband, I just found it hard to believe that she and Eddie were soul-mates, and she always seemed out of sync with the rest of the characters. Compared to Samantha, Susan just felt two-dimensional, as though we were supposed to be shocked and a little annoyed that Eddie would marry her and not run off searching for Samantha. Be that as it may, this really was a book about Samantha and while I wish the other characters had been a little more equally weighted, they each had an important function within the story and they fulfilled those roles well.

The book cycles through Samantha, Fletcher and Susan (mostly) as narrators, though Samantha takes up the lion's share of these. It helped spread the story out, divulging certain details of the mystery to one character (and yourself) while keeping that little nugget in the dark from the rest of the main cast of players. It results in an interesting array of red herrings and wasted hunts - but ever so slowly, among the potential threads of Government conspiracies, the psychological impact of war, relationships, secrets and assaults, Fletcher, Hart and Samantha build up a case that is much bigger than the original belief of Eddie's mother that he wasn't the victim of a simple carjacking. Because of the focus on Samatha and her personal history with Eddie, and recent losses, the mystery wasn't the most difficult to work out - but it didn't need to be. The meat of the story is Samantha (and to a lesser extent Susan and Fletcher) coming to terms with her situation, letting go of the past  and moving forward.

This book was a spin-off from J.T. Ellison's Taylor Jackson, and already has a second book due for publication at the end of the year. I'm intrigued to see where it heads, because it was pretty neatly wrapped up in the closing chapters of this book - but I imagine it probably follows Samantha back in her proper position as medical examiner. Hopefully now that Samantha's character is well formed and has had a book dedicated to the good, bad and ugly sides of her self, the next book will be able to focus on some new characters who work side by side with Samantha, although I would also love to see some of the crew from this book pop up in the next story too! A Deeper Darkness is an engaging story with a mystery that packs a punch and a protagonist with a lot of heart. A great read!


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