The Dark Winter, by David Mark
In literature as in life, there remains an emphatic north/south divide. Try finding a publisher for a crime novel set anywhere north of Watford (but south of Berwick-upon-Tweed), and you’ll see what northerners are up against. This was the problem that plagued David Mark for a long, frustrating decade before the fine people at Quercus did the decent thing and unleashed The Dark Winter on the world.
Set in the much-derided, post-industrial city of Hull, The Dark Winter introduces DS Aector McAvoy, a gentle, studiously decent man with the physique of a grizzly bear. When we meet McAvoy, he is alienated from his fellow coppers, and about to be plunged into an investigation of a brutal murder. A young girl, the sole survivor of a massacre in Sierra Leone, is hacked to death with a machete during a packed church service. As the body count rises, it becomes clear that a killer is dispatching those who have cheated death before.
As a protagonist, McAvoy bucks any number of crime trends. He is happily and devotedly married, has no problems with addiction, and where his peers have demons, McAvoy has only the desire to be a better man. In this respect, McAvoy is much like Brian McGilloway’s Inspector Devlin. McAvoy’s weakness, as Stuart Neville recently observed of Devlin, is his decency. It isolates him from his colleagues and makes him prone to self-doubt. While this may make him less relatable than a common or garden variety dipsomaniac DS, Mark is to be applauded for keeping the genre fresh. Besides that, McAvoy, with his uncompromising commitment to ethical purity, is precisely the type of cop we should all want on the force.
An atypical hero then, and set against an atypical backdrop. While McAvoy is a tenacious Scot in the mould of a Rebus or Skinner, the action takes place in a Humberside that, if Mark’s portrayal of it is anything to go by, has been undeservedly overlooked as a setting for crime writing. Tapping into the decline of the fishing industry in particular, Mark traces the line from joblessness to hopelessness to lawlessness. Except among a few first generation, house-proud holdouts, council estates are devoid of civic pride to the point where arson is welcomed. A familiar pattern emerges in the city centre, where increasing numbers of boarded-up windows stand testament to the failing economy. While London crime might arise from anonymity, overcrowding or explosive ingredients in the cultural melting pot, there is a sense that in Hull, crime is a by-product of decay.
Be advised though: this isn’t just northern poverty-porn. Mark has a poet’s eye for writing. Working in the present tense, Mark peppers his chapters with rich imagery, but avoids pretentiousness by counterpointing his literary flourishes with more earthy language -
“McAvoy breathes deeply. Fills himself up with it. This chilly, complicated Yorkshire air, laced with the salt and spray of the coast; the smoke of the oil refineries; the burned cocoa of the chocolate factory; the pungency of the animal feed unloaded from the super-container at the docks this morning; the cigarettes and fried food of a people in decline, and a city on its arse.”
Strong on character, on setting, and on style, The Dark Winter is a thoroughly promising debut, but there is also a very real sense that Mark has plenty more in the tank. The political and sexual intrigue in McAvoy’s workplace looks to be an abundant source of drama for the future, and while Hull has been richly examined here, no doubt subsequent books will find Mark turning over equally fascinating stones in the city to see what crawls beneath. Certainly, it should come as no surprise to readers to hear that Mark already has the first ten (yes, ten) McAvoy novels plotted in his head.
Overall, The Dark Winter is a fine piece of craftsmanship from a writer with great potential. It is satisfyingly different, with a distinctive voice and an intelligently handled plot. Ten years in the coming seems frankly ludicrous, but apparently extremely good things come to those who wait.