Darkness at the Stroke of Noon
Review: Set in Canada's northernmost territory of Nunavut, where total darkness can descend at the stroke of noon, Dennis Richard Murphy's posthumously published Darkness at the Stroke of Noon masterfully blends history, mystery and a hatful of contentious current events. The debut novel is a tribute to the talents of an accomplished television writer, director, producer, teacher and short story award winner who died of cancer in June 2008 at age 64, shortly after his book's final edit.
Murphy's hero, Booker Kennison, a kickabout orphan as a kid, has served in the RCMP long enough to rise to Sergeant, gain combat experience as a Bosnia-Herzogovinia peacekeeper, and collect a file full of names and slimy secrets connected to the allegations of the Force's misappropriated pension funds. His partner tried exposing the scandal, but ended up dead. For his role Kennison has been banished to the arctic outpost at Yellowknife, then sent further north to Victory Point to investigate the suspicious deaths of two archaeologists at a camp with sites known as "Heaven," "Purgatory," and "Hell." As soon as he gets there Kennison realizes he has no angels but only demons to deal with, including some of his own plus an assassination attempt on him in addition to a murderer (or is it two killers of the archaeologists), the remnants of the allegations of cannibalism among the Franklin Expedition crew members in the 1840s, a missing 160-year-old journal, and a modern day band of Inuit land claims terrorists known as Turqavik. And he's got only two days to thaw out the case before the weather ices over it forever and leaves him, the scientists and their campsite exhumations to an eternally frozen fate.
Murphy artfully juggles several stories at once. He uses pages from the journal of a 25-year-old teacher with Franklin's expedition to reveal the explorers' stories of cannibalism and mutiny. The journal, in turn, becomes the focus for the story of the murder of the archaeologist, Dr. Karl Conrad Kneiser, who found it. But Kennison must determine why the man had a bullet in his brain when his body was found charred beyond recognition in a fire that also took the life of a twenty-something female photographer when "a volatile conspiracy of wind and flame and fear and fate levelled the shack in seconds." And why were they together anyway, especially when the Yellowknife pathologist confirms via radio that the young woman was, "Just pregnant – maybe a month or a bit more."? Then, there's the shot fired at Kennison by a sniper that an Inuit member of Dr. Kneisser's crew kills, and how does the sharpshooter fit into the tale? And while these stories are being unravelled another one bubbles up over current claims to the Northwest Passage for which Kneiser's American-based employer has sent a female FBI agent to the site to escort him and "Ein Buch" home. But while she arrives too late to help him, she's on time to interfere with Kennison's investigation before becoming his ally in a heart-warming turn of events. And finally, there's the trio of Quebec-linked Turqavik terrorists out to kill or be killed since "Whatever they're after here is valuable to them."
As an accomplished filmmaker, Murphy knows the value of intercuts and flashbacks, techniques he uses adeptly here to quicken or slow the action. The final scenes are particularly fast-paced as the terrorists move into the camp to take what they have come for and leave no survivors. At other times there are telephone calls between RCMP brass at headquarters and the Yellowknife detachment commander or between Yellowknife and the energy-depleted equipment at Victory Point that Kennison uses. The sometimes wryly black humorous scenes of the Yellowknife autopsy lab and the casual conversation of the pathologists with their makeshift equipment are a far cry from the CSI wherevers of television land. Characterization is another strong point for the novel with separate identities quickly established, consistently maintained and memorably well-rounded with names used like Poncey, Grey Anne, Lillian Ooqlooq or by descriptions such as "the boulder gopher" or "the boy with the piercings."
Although the principal stories draw neatly to a close, there are enough tag ends and a handful of potential carry-forward characters to form a sequel. Sadly, it won't be written by Dennis Murphy due to his untimely death, and we're left wondering what might have been.
Reviewer's note: A tape of the exclusive radio drama of Darkness at the Stroke of Noon can be heard on the HarperCollinsCanada website.
Special thanks to M. Wayne Cunningham (firstname.lastname@example.org) for contributing his review of Darkness at the Stroke of Noon.
Review Copyright © 2009 — M. Wayne Cunningham — All Rights Reserved
Reprinted with Permission
Location(s) referenced in Darkness at the Stroke of Noon: Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
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Darkness at the Stroke of Noon by Dennis Richard Murphy
Publication Date: February 2009
List Price: C$21.95
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Page Author: Lance Wright
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