Into The Darkest Corner, by Elizabeth Haynes

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

I don’t read a lot of crime fiction, which means that I don’t have a lot of experience reviewing crime novels. While spoilers are annoying (or more) in literary fiction reviews, they truly are book-destroying when it comes to crime — so if parts of this review are opaque, please accept that it is a learning experience for the reviewer and I would prefer to err on the side of caution.

Into The Darkest Corner is a first novel from Elizabeth Haynes — the biographical note says she is “a police intelligence analyst” based in Kent and that background does show up in spades in the book. The tag on the back cover labels it “General fiction/Crime fiction”, a dual listing that I think is accurate so I’ll try to focus on the “general” part.

The author does help out on the spoiler front by opening the novel with seven pages of testimony from the 2005 trial of Lee Brightman, including both direct and cross examination. We learn that he is accused of assaulting Catherine Bailey — his version is that she was suffering from ‘emotional problems’, was excessively jealous when his ‘investigative’ work (which he cannot tell her about) took him away for days at a time: “She went mad at me. I’d been working on a particularly difficult job and something inside me snapped. I hit her back. It was the first time I’d ever hit a woman.”

Haynes adds some more back story (and another character) in the opening of the novel proper, dated June 21, 2001 (you do need to pay attention to the dated chapter headings in this book):

Naomi Bennett lay with her eyes open at the bottom of a ditch while the blood that had kept her alive for all of her twenty-four years pulsed away into the grit and rubble beneath her.

As she drifted in and out of awareness, she contemplated the irony of it all: how she was going to die now — having survived so much, and thinking that freedom was so close — at the hands of the only man who had ever really loved her and shown her kindness. He stood at the edge of the ditch above her, his face in shadow as the sun shone through the bright green leaves and cast dappled light over him, his hair halo-bright. Waiting.

A third time frame, November 2007, is introduced a few pages later in the first person voice of Catherine Bailey:

Getting up isn’t my problem, getting out of the house is. Once I’m showered and dressed, have had something to eat, I start the process of checking that the flat is secure before I go to work. It’s like a reverse of the process I go through in the evening, but worse somehow, because I know that time is against me. I can spend all night checking if I want to, but I know I have to get to work, so in the mornings I can only do it so many times. I have to leave the curtains in the lounge and in the dining room, by the balcony, open to exactly the right width every day or I can’t come back in the flat again. There are sixteen panes in each of the patio doors; the curtains have to be open so that I can see just eight panes of each door if I look up to the flat from the path at the back of the house. If I can see a sliver of the dining room through the other panes, or if the curtains aren’t hanging straight, then I’ll have to go back up to the flat and start again.

So we know from the start that Into The Darkest Corner is not a “whodunit”. “What” was done and “how” are open questions — even more compelling is the issue of “why”. And the present tense stream of the narrative acquaints us early on that there have been severe personal consequences for Catherine Bailey.

Haynes chooses to tell her story by alternating two time frames — the events that led to that 2005 trial and what the emotionally-damaged Catherine is doing in trying to put together a life in 2007. The author puts her “investigative analyst” background to good work in simultaneously exploring both what led to the incident that provoked the trial and what the ongoing consequences of that were and are.

The result is a perceptive study of what it is like to be a victim — not just the obvious damage, but the coping strategies that are developed, the destructive obsession with trying to ensure safety and the way that all of that makes it impossible to lead any version of a normal life, however much that might be desired by the individual involved.

Yes, the two story lines do eventually come together with some very well developed suspense. By then, Catherine (at least for this reader) has become a very sympathetic character — the concluding pages are a good example that “general” and “crime” fiction can exist in the same book.

Into The Darkest Corner maintained my interest throughout; Haynes has a strong narrative voice and uses the alternating time frames to good effect. If the story outline sparks your interest, I think you would find this debut novel a worthwhile read. If it doesn’t, your time is probably better invested elsewhere.

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11 Responses to “Into The Darkest Corner, by Elizabeth Haynes”

  1. savidgereads Says:

    I have been getting recommended this every time I log into my Amazon account. After reading your review it looks like I should listen to what its telling me. My only issue is that the second paragraph in the first quote you have chosen is both clunky, kind of beautiful and slightly cliched. Maybe it’s just that bit in the whole book? Or is that the style all in all?

    It does seem a shame crime fiction is sneered at! With series like Kate Atkinsons and Susan Hills you get more than just the thrills and bloody spills. In fact I think Hill said that she can reflect human life at it’s best in her crime novels… Or something along those lines.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Simon: “Clunky” might be a bit harsh, but there is no doubt that the story is better than the prose. That is not a criticism — Haynes’ background brings an experience that carries the story and the writing is workmanlike enough. For me, that was more than enough to carry the book. She has a genuine interest in her principal characters (not just Catherine but a number whom I didn’t mention because it would have meant bringing in too much detail from the plot that I think readers would rather discover on their own).

    I’m not sure what I would compare it to, so I can’t predict what Amazon algorithm has picked this for you.

    • savidgereads Says:

      Yes sorry clunky wasn’t the right word. My apologies. I meant it reads a bit oddly, something about awareness just made me stop. Weird how a word can do that.

      I love a good crime and this has had a rave review so I am definitely on the look out for it.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    Sometimes, Kevin, it’s product placement. Books or should I say publishers pay big bucks to pop up on the screen.

    I trust the customers who bought X also bought Y a bit more.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I don’t buy a lot of books from Amazon, but my experience is that the recommendations generally bear some relation to books that I have purchased (and I suspect some promotion fee has been paid as well). Simon does read crime — I suspect that’s what produces the recommendation.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    Amazon does an excellent job of showing recommendations, but there is also a programme (the product placement) where you will see other books on the same page as the item you are looking it, and money has been paid for the book(s) to be put there. I found out the hard way about this in the past.

    What drew you to this crime novel since it’s not your normal read?

  6. leroyhunter Says:

    Nice review Kevin, I’m certainly intrigued.

    Like Simon I can’t help being put off a little by that quote: when a character supposedly on the brink of death is “contemplating the irony of it all” then I start to hear alarm bells. The other stuff sounds strong though, and I suppose every writer is entitled to the occasional infelicity.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy, Leroy: I ordered this book because bookermt, a poster on the Booker forum site, has it on his personal longlist for this year’s Booker. bookermt reads a lot of new UK fiction (and shares many of my tastes) so I was intrigued to see why he rated it so highly.

    Parts of it do read “clunky” (Simon, I don’t think there is reason to apologize regarding the para you applied that to), but I was willing to accept that because Haynes’ best talent is exploring the psychological side of the “crime” and its aftermath. That also means that at some points her characters becme a bit one-dimensional but I found that a relatively minor flaw.

    I do give debut novelists a bit of critical leverage — this book also reminded me that I also give leverage to authors who bring another field of expertise to fiction. Haynes does that very well in this book.

  8. Guy Savage Says:

    I agree with Simon and Leroy–the quote put me off. Still nice to see a new name in crime and you taking the plunge.

  9. bookermt Says:

    Kevin

    I concur pretty much 100% with everything you say in this review. For your readers concerned with the style I would say that I was bothered by it to start with but I actually came to accept that it rather fitted the characters as I had come to “know” them through the novel.
    The main strength here is the really effective study of how and why a victim of crime can be forced into a state of such psychological disturbance (in this case OCD).
    I wonder how much editorial guidance the author received in the final workings of the text.
    Like Kevin I don’t read very much crime fiction but I wouldn’t really classify this in the true sense of the genre (Crime-detective-victim-crime solved etc etc). What it lacks in literary poise it more than makes up for in being a very compelling narrative and I’m very glad I read it.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    bookermt: I had much the same reaction to the prose. While it perhaps was not as polished as I am used to, I found myself almost “cheering” for the author because of how much I respected her for the story that she was telling. For me, that is a real tribute — Haynes had me fully involved in her story and her characters, however awkward some of her expression might have been.

    And I think if I had been her editor, I would have said “let’s leave the prose just like it is.”

    I also agree that this is not “crime” as I generally understand it — although I certainly feel it belongs in a legitimate subset of that genre (and literary fiction as well).

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