This is my third foray into Meg Gardiner’s Unsub series, and the one which showcases its constant improvement both story- and character-wise. My renewed interest in crime fiction can now rely on two excellent authors: Michael Connelly and Meg Gardiner.
In this new case, former detective and now FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix has been called to Los Angeles to investigate a series of brutal home invasions: the unsub (short for Unknown Subject) committing the crimes targets houses where families with children live, viciously kills the parents and terrorizes the children, often leaving crude messages or pictures of eyes on the walls. The press has taken to call him the Midnight Man, because that’s the hour when he’s liable to strike, when everyone in the house is sleeping and therefore more defenseless. As both the police and the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit struggle to pinpoint the identity and the personality of the killer – who is extremely careful not to leave clues or recognizable images on surveillance cameras – the Midnight Man makes his first mistake by attacking young Hannah’s house: the girl manages not only to give the alarm and therefore save her parents’ life, she is also able to offer some important information to the investigators, turning into a pivotal witness for law enforcement but also painting a target on her own back because the killer is deadly set in removing the danger, and the intolerable failure, she represents.
The Dark Corners of the Night turned out to be not only the most gripping novel in the series so far, but also one that affected me quite deeply in an unexpected way: while I was reading the book, I was awakened one night by a noise – with all probability one of the not-so-careful people living one floor above moving around with no consideration for the late hour or their neighbors’ rest. At any other time I might simply have grumbled and tried to go back to sleep, but the power of the story I was reading was such that I had to take a tour of the apartment and check that the door was locked, even though I kept berating myself for such silliness: I’ve read a good number of thrillers, I’ve read horror stories, for pity’s sake, and I’ve never given any though to “monsters” lurking in the dark, but this time I did – that’s the extent of my emotional involvement with this book.
This novel is indeed a compulsive read that will keep you on the edge of your seat for most of the time: the descriptions of the killer’s incursions, the urgent search for any clue or piece of information that might lead to his capture, and the final, adrenaline-infused chase through the city, all combine to create a breathless atmosphere of suspense that will keep you enthralled from start to finish. Even the relatively quieter moments, when details are examined and we are made privy to the intriguing aspects of law enforcement procedures, feel like part of that pressing need to know what motivates this unsub, who he is and what can be done to find and stop his killing spree. The greater attraction here comes from following the police and FBI’s steps in collating the evidence, slowly but surely piecing together the various elements of the puzzle: as readers we get the same information that law enforcements has and therefore we feel like we’re moving alongside them in this journey, with no privileged outlook that might lead us to get the whole picture before the characters. Plot-wise, this is my preferred method of exploring a story, because I love being surprised and discovering that any hunch I might have had was totally wrong.
Meg Gardiner’s novels don’t rely on plot alone, though, because she always manages to achieve a good balance between that and character development. Caitlin Hendrix is of course the one under the brighter spotlight, and here we see how the search for the Midnight Man and his elusive trail ends up affecting her: while this book can be read as a stand-alone, it would be better to be aware of Caitlin’s difficult journey and the emotional scars from both her past, and the more recent events, to fully comprehend some of her reactions to the stress of the chase, particularly when she falls back to some compulsive habits that plagued her youth. Since fiction has accustomed us to see law enforcement officers as tough, unyielding individuals, we tend to forget they are human beings as well, and therefore subject to human frailties, which might sometimes reduce their field effectiveness but helps greatly in sympathizing with them and seeing them as people: this is the case with Caitlin’s flaws, which don’t demean her but instead offer a balanced counterpoint to her investigating skills.
Dark Corners also offers an intriguing character study with young Hannah: gifted with great courage and observational skills well beyond her years, she offers the intriguing portrait of a child who goes through some harrowing experiences but has the strength and presence of mind to fight against her fears and offer the police the means to apprehend the killer. I quite enjoyed the interactions between Hannah and Caitlin, with the latter probably seeing in the young girl a mirror of herself, of a victim who refuses to be relegated in that role and acts proactively with every means at her disposal. On the opposite side of the spectrum there is the Midnight Man: as his profile becomes less hazy and we start to understand what makes him tick and what propelled him toward his killing spree, it’s impossible not to be chilled by the realization that there might be many like him living literally next door, and that it might take only a little shift in their precarious balance to tip them off toward such darkness.
As the novel neared its conclusion I was already mourning the fact that Caitlin’s story seemed to be headed toward a final wrap, because I have been enjoying these novels very much, but I was glad to discover that the final paragraphs hint toward new developments though the possible return of an old adversary, which means that a fourth book might very well be in the works as I write this. If that’s the case I am surely on board for more, and as I wait I can always explore some other works from Meg Gardiner who is – happily for me – a very prolific author.