Book review: A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez

A Dark Redemption
By Stav Sherez
Faber&Faber, 2012
Carrigan and Miller #1

DI Jack Carrigan is a maverick loner, unpopular with both his superiors and his junior colleagues in the Met because of his habit not only of going his own way in his own investigations, but also in taking home with him the work-in-progress of other detectives’ cases – providing unwanted advice. In a variant on this well-worn theme, the reader sees him as a man haunted by a traumatic event in his past when he visited Uganda with two university friends immediately after graduating. Only two of the three men returned; whatever happened in Africa has affected them ever since.

Another of Carrigan’s habits that makes him unpopular with colleagues is that he is expert at being the first detective at a crime scene when the uniformed branch put out a call, hence being able to run the subsequent case. His eagerness brings him to a run-down block of flats in Bayswater, where he eventually discovers the horribly murdered body of one of the residents, a young woman.

Carrigan’s immediate superior, Superintendent Branch, calls upon DC Geneva Miller, previously busted down a rank in a disciplinary action. He tells her that in return for seconding her to Carrigan’s investigation to keep an eye on him and report back, he will reinstate her to the rank of Sergeant. Reluctantly, she agrees. Geneva is a young woman with her own demons: a Czech dissident poet for a mother who strongly disapproves of her daughter’s profession; a broken marriage; and a neurotic tendency to scratch her arms and hands to produce sores.

These two obsessives, Carrigan and Miller, together with Carrigan’s relatively unfriendly team, pursue the case with vigour, soon discovering that the victim was a student at the London School of African and Oriental studies who was writing a thesis on the rise of rebel groups in her native Uganda, documenting individuals’ inevitable brutalization and cruel practices. The tension builds up: the powers that be at the Met want the crime classified as a sex attack; Miller is convinced that there is a political angle but finds both Carrigan and Branch reluctant to listen to her.

A Dark Redemption is at its strongest in the depiction of the Ugandan community in London; in the non-judgemental yet up-front accounts of suffering and terror in Uganda; and in the nascent friendship between the two protagonists as their mutual suspicion gradually eases. Both characters have plenty of undeveloped back-story that no doubt will be revealed in more detail in future books in the series. The novel is less strong in its plot, which depends too much on the detectives being blocked in their enquiries or on them not being given information because of interference from government and embassy officials.

Carrigan’s and Miller’s largely separate unravelling of the secrets about the dead woman and her possible relationship with other Ugandans in London is well-conveyed – I particularly liked the interview with her thesis advisor. But it is not a stretch to guess who is behind the crimes, which all comes out in rather a weak climax. I would have enjoyed this book much more despite some plot weaknesses and other (minor but irritating) inconsistencies if it had not resorted to unnecessarily graphic descriptions of horrific murder and torture, in particular of the young woman who is at the centre of the case. The book could have provided the relevant information and packed the same emotional punch without the evilly gruesome details.

I thank Sarah of Crimepieces for sending me this book. Her review of the book is here.

Other (pretty much 100 % positive) reviews of A Dark Redemption: Reactions to Reading, The Game’s Afoot, It’s a Crime! and Bookgeeks (Mike Stafford), where you can also read an interview with the author.

About the book and the Ugandan background at the author’s website.

13 thoughts on “Book review: A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez

  1. Interesting review Maxine (you are reading at a cracking pace at the moment!). The book did have graphic descriptions which I usually can’t stand but in the context of the East African groups I felt was probably about right.
    The book will make an interesting series I think with strong central charaters.

    • Thanks, Sarah. To me, the “East African justification” is not adequate for the awful description of the young woman’s ordeal in such detail. A good author does not need to resort to such explicit horror to create a tragic and shocking effect. In the end, the actual details were not relevant to the plot resolution. (I think the same about Nesbo’s schlock horror tendencies – I presume they are there because people like reading them, or someone thinks they do, which I find rather sad).

  2. I certainly remember the violence in this book but don’t recall it feeling gratuitous or written purely to shock, I supposed it was meant to be in keeping with the realism of the book and so was more forgiving or accepting if you like than when I get the feeling of it being included purely for the shock value. Though I agree the book wouldn’t have suffered any for a less graphic depiction of the various deaths.

    I find myself increasingly not knowing what to think about what I consider to be unnecessarily explicit violence, sex or language in books – perhaps because I feel like I’m coming across it more and more often (it’s OK I won’t go on another rant about The Slap). I wonder if it’s just something I have to accept – that the world and I have different standards for what is and isn’t necessary on these subjects. Or should I be taking a stand and trying to reign in the worst of the excesses?

    • Thanks, Bernadette. I think the world has changed a lot since the days of Lord of the Rings et al where the story was the thing and the violence present but incidental. The description of what the natives did to their captives in Coral Island, which I read when I was about 10, was done in a couple of sentences yet I have never forgotten the awful details – this was how it was done in days gone past – to the point and brief.

      Oh well, I realise I am in a minority as a lot of people like all this stuff – but at least I can write what I think here if nowhere else.

  3. Maxine -Thanks for this excellent review, and for the reminder that I need to read this. I think I may be a stick-in-the-mud about this, but honestly, I’ve read too much fine crime fiction where the violence isn’t brutal or described in graphic detail to believe you need to have that kind of violence for a book to work well. For some reason that someone better versed than I am in psychology would have to explain, there seems to be nearly an “anything goes” attitude towards violence and brutal acts that to me anyway don’t add to the plot. It’s more and more common and there seems to be more and more pressure to include violence and other explicitness in novels. In the best novels I’ve read, the plot and characters come first and the violence falls out naturally from the plot. The plot isn’t built around it.

    • Thanks, Margot. I don’t want to get too hung up on it, as it was not a main feature of the book here. But to my mind it was an unnecessary garnish – the book stood on its own well enough without it and indeed the effort could have been better used on brushing up some of the slightly weaker plot elements & ironing out a few inconsistencies in what we’d been told about a character which did not tie in with how they behaved. Sometimes I think these “nasty” bits are evidence of lack of confidence in the whole – as if it could not stand without them.

  4. By the way, I wonder if I am the only reader of this book old enough to remember when “Ugandan discussions” had a particular general meaning in the UK? (Used by Private Eye to poke fun at some of the practices of Idi Amin with his ministers et al, while still in power. The magazine went on to broaden the phrase to describe any such situation, possibly to avoid being sued for defamation by the discussion participants.)

  5. I do not like gratuitous or graphic violence, certainly not torture scenes of women or children. I don’t read books which feature those scenes. And, even with Stieg Larsson’s books, I skipped some pages or paragraphs or one chapter in book II. When I watched the movies, I put my hands up to cover the screen a few times in book I. I don’t need that stuff. I know too much about violence against women and children. It’s on the news all the time. The reality is horrible enough, don’t need it when I’m trying to relax, distract and be entertained.
    On the discussions about Uganda, I didn’t or don’t get into that as the descriptions of my own government’s actions in Vietnam, especially dealing with women and innocent villagers (My Lai, etc.) keep me away from this topic. I just don’t read horrors of war. When I read that a bomb killed 9 Afghan boys who were out goat- and sheep-herding for their families, or that a soldier from the states killed 15 Afghan people in their homes sleeping, 9 of them children — that’s more than enough for me. I avoid this in the news — the details — and regarding other countries.
    And in fiction, it’s enough to read of family or village or city dysfunction, but I avoid the worst descriptions. It is not entertaining and I also shudder to think who likes that.
    As I always say, is it a substitute for good writing? Well-written books with character development and interesting plots and solutions don’t need a lot of gratuitous violence? Hakan Nesser, Adrian Hyland, Tana French, Arnaldur Indridasson, Denise Mina, and so many other writers do not need this. There are many other writers who’ve been listed here who don’t use this plot device. I say: More good writing!

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