A Darkness Absolute (Rockton #2) by Kelley Armstrong
A Darkness Absolute is a compelling psychological crime thriller, set in the frozen wastes of the Yukon. In some ways, this story parallels the work of Jane Harper, with the very remoteness of the location creating a sort of “locked room” mystery where the range of suspects is limited by the near-inaccessibility of the surroundings. Jane Harper’s locales are often very hot and dry, while Kelley Armstrong’s are extremely cold. Both pose dangers to life and health, where wandering off into the wilderness can be toxic, and both contain threats from wildlife – in Armstrong’s case, from grizzly bears and cougars, among others. One author has recurring themes of heat and bright sunlight; the other continually refers to freezing cold, permafrost and gloomy, short and dark days.
But Armstrong’s stand-alone novel is much more complex than a “locked room” mystery. It has elements of science fiction and fantasy, including its setting in a town which does not exist – that is, it is concealed from society, has force fields to prevent airborne or drone surveillance and is cut off from telecommunications and any access to outside news. The occupants of this strange settlement, named Rockton, are all running and hiding from something, including serious criminal behaviour; being stalked by gangland assassins; shame, disgrace or guilt and other various reasons for wanting to drop out of sight. Some have paid large sums to a mysterious profit-making distant “council,” while others have been recruited to bring special skills including medical and law enforcement backgrounds. A few others are paid by the council to secretly spy and report on the behaviour of other residents.
There have been a series of murders and disappearances of young women, and the narrator Casey Duncan, a former big city detective with a chequered past, is assigned to investigate, assisted by the town’s volunteer sheriff and his deputy. Everyone in the settlement has some motive or opportunity but there are also possible outside perpetrators, including “settlers” who have moved away from Rockton to form tiny hunter-gatherer hamlets, but cannot risk returning to the wider community. Indeed, some who tried are rumoured to have disappeared without trace. Then there are the “hostiles” who have gone feral in the wild – although their actual existence is unproven.
Armstrong weaves a complicated web of relationships and psychologies, including many hints of violence and severe conflicts, but the reader has to piece these together as most are not fully articulated. The novel comes to a climax when the perpetrator is cornered and in the end a rough sort of justice is achieved.
Although it stretches credulity in a number of ways, I enjoyed this book, particularly its in-depth character development of a number of major players and the breathtaking descriptions of the Canadian wild.