And I was so reluctant to start reading! Subtitled "The Darkest Hour Trilogy Book 1," THE DAMNED has a cemetery monument topped with a cross on the cover, and the cover text reveals the presence of werewolves in this World War I crime novel. Oh dear!
But fortunately, I've recently become an ardent fan of John Connolly's Maine-based books of crime where evil wears paranormal garb, so I'm a bit more open that I used to be to accepting this kind of twist in a murder mystery IF it's really, really well written.
And Tarn Richardson can definitely write a rattling good tale, with page-turning suspense that never slows down. The book opens in the front-line trenches of Arras, France, in 1914, where the gas, the mud, and the deadly shelling of the nearby German lines turn each battle's movements into a dance of terror and death. For Lieutenant Henry Frost, caught between war's clearly mad leadership and the impending deaths of his men, every effort of courage and gallantry is also a losing effort. When the German shelling abruptly ceases, it's tempting to celebrate -- until Frost and his forces realize the horror of what's actually taken place.
And as the war lines writhe and suffer, Poldek Tacit, an Inquisitor sent by the Vatican against the forces of evil, faces his nemesis in France. Unexpectedly assisting him in investigating who is dying why, in the run-up to the anticipated Mass for Peace, is Sister Isabella, the most unlikely "Sister" that Tacit has ever met. Deliberately sexualized in appearance, she's a Vatican inquisitor of sorts herself, sent forth to "test the faith" of the Church's hardened fighters in the field.
As townspeople, combatants, and even priest around them die, Tacit and Sister Isabella finally take off the gloves and attack each other, with Tacit accusing her of deliberately enticing him:
"Do they think I've fallen from the path with more than my drinking and my faith? Thought that I would be tempted? That I would wish to f*** a whore of the Vatican?"But this failure of teamwork can't be allowed to stand, because indeed the Church has cause to believe in the evil that's multiplying within the landscape. And unless the bitter Inquisitor with his silver bullets and the angry Sister figure out how to reach and stop that evil, World War I and the Mass for Peace may be even more of a disaster than the armed forces can imagine.
The words tormented and disgusted her. "How dare you!" roared Isabella, storming forward to strike him. Her hands were drawn white with rage. "How dare you call me such a thing?"
"Well, look at you. You never looked like any Sister I've ever seen!" he cried, climbing out of his chair.
"And you're not like any Inquisitor, Inquisitor! What happened to the man who's hanging [as a portrait] on the wall of the Vatican! The Inquisitor of honor? The one with a light in his eyes and an urgency in his features?"
"He got old."
Did I "buy" the notion of an alternate World War I, of werewolves, of a secret and ongoing Inquisition led by the Catholic church? Actually, yes -- the horrors of shell shock, poison gas, and international machinations that we're learning about a century after the Great War, make Richardson's additions to the landscape seem just one small step further in danger and darkness. And Poldek Tacit, a violent but oddly honorable version of Graham Greene's "whisky priest," is a perfect fit in this world gone mad.
So who do you suppose the true villain is? By the end of THE DAMNED, the sacrifices that Tacit needs to make are clear. And I found I was eager for the second and third books of the trilogy. I hope Overlook won't wait too long to move them in our direction.
By the way, THE DAMNED is a debut novel, and only a roughness in the pacing gives this away; the author's writing career is eccentric and includes digital media -- which makes sense, as there's a sense of cameras rolling and dramatic shifts of light with the twists of plot. Overlook's print runs are not huge -- make sure to get your first-edition hardcover ASAP, before a lot of people start grabbing them.