Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook
Genres: mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #1
Published by Severn House Publishers on May 1, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
A Country House Murder Mystery with a Supernatural Twist
Ishmael Jones is someone who can't afford to be noticed, someone who lives under the radar, who drives on the dark side of the road. He's employed to search out secrets, investigate mysteries and shine a light in dark places. Sometimes he kills people. Invited by his employer, the enigmatic Colonel, to join him and his family for Christmas, Ishmael arrives at the grand but isolated Belcourt Manor in the midst of a blizzard to find that the Colonel has mysteriously disappeared. As he questions his fellow guests, Ishmael concludes that at least one of them not least Ishmael himself - is harbouring a dangerous secret, and that beneath the veneer of festive cheer lurk passion, jealousy, resentment and betrayal. As a storm sets in, sealing off the Manor from the rest of the world, Ishmael must unmask a ruthless murderer they strike again.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to do this all week. But Night Fall left me with an epic book hangover and absolutely no taste for the romance I was planning to review today. And then I remembered that I had the first book in this series, that I’d never read it, and that there was a chance that it was not part of any of the author’s many series that were rather conclusively concluded in Night Fall.
I decided not to resist. Sometimes it really is futile.
Instead of anything that I was expecting, the Ishmael Jones series in general, and The Dark Side of the Road in particular, has the feel of a classic murder mystery, in this very particular case a classic, British country house murder mystery. What makes it different is that the series is set in a Men in Black kind of world, where there really are aliens among us – who sometimes behave just as badly as we do.
And the detective, Ishmael Jones, reminds me an awful, awful, wonderfully awful lot of Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood, in that he seems to be immortal, at least as far as he knows, and not exactly from around here. But where Captain Jack is a human from the future, Ishmael Jones is an alien turned into a human – or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof – most of the time.
To further the resemblance, both Captain Jack and Ishmael Jones have a few holes in their memories. But Jack only lost two years. Ishmael, at least so far, seems to have lost everything prior to his ship’s crash landing on Earth in 1963. He has hazy dream-fugue quasi-memories, and nothing else.
Oh, and his blood runs golden, not red. Pretty conclusive evidence that whatever he is, he isn’t garden variety human.
The Dark Side of the Road exists somewhere at the intersection of urban fantasy, science fiction and horror. Let’s say it’s horror-adjacent, which is about as close as I like to go.
Ishmael Jones works for a secret organization that’s just called “The Organization”. It’s the latest in a long line of secret quasi-governmental agencies that Ishmael has worked for since he crashed on Earth. The more interconnected the world gets, the harder it is to change identities and hide his lack of aging – among other things.
So the Organization protects him, and he does work for them. He’s a bit of a clean-up man. When aliens, or other weird people, or things, break the law, Ishmael is one of the people who cleans up after. In a way, Ishmael is one of the Men in Black.
When his boss invites him to a country house party for Christmas, way, way out in Cornwall during the snowstorm not merely of the century, but possibly of the millenium, Ishmael battles heaven, hell, an intermittent GPS and an overtaxed steering wheel to reach the place – only to discover that by the time he gets there, his boss has gone missing.
Ishmael finds a whole lot of weird family drama, an ex-lover, an ex-colleague, and finally his boss’s body, decapitated and hidden in a snowman. Or as a snowman. Blizzard of the millennium, after all.
The remaining inhabitants are all quick to point the finger, first at a random stranger, and then at each other. But once the bodies start piling up, it becomes obvious to everyone that the killer is in the house with them.
And that the killer is not entirely human. But then again, neither is Ishmael Jones.
Escape Rating B+: This did turn out to be exactly what I was looking for to get out of that book hangover. I needed a book where I would be compelled to keep turning pages – just to see what happened next. And The Dark Side of the Road certainly had that kind of compulsion.
Along with a high creep factor – but one that is totally appropriate to its horror-adjacency.
The setting does a great job of invoking those classic country house murder mysteries. If you’re not thinking of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None before the end of the book, you’re not creeped out nearly enough.
The story is science fiction, and it’s horror, and it’s urban fantasy. And it’s a mystery. That’s a lot of fictional plates to keep spinning. The only real SFnal element is Ishmael’s origin. He’s definitely an alien, but over the 50 plus years he’s been mostly human, this has become his planet and we have become his people. Wherever he came from, he can’t go back. And whatever made him human, it gave him human emotions and reactions, but a whole lot of better-than-human capabilities. He can’t actually do anything we can’t, but he does them all better and faster and more efficiently.
The mystery of who killed his boss, and continues killing his boss’ remaining family, moved from mystery to horror. At first it’s a question of whodunnit. But as the corpses and evidence mount, the question moves from whodunnit to what done it, and then to who is masquerading as the what.
The answer to that question tips the story from mystery into horror. Or at least adjacent enough to creep me out a bit – but not too much.
As things go from bad to worse to desperate, we follow along from Ishmael’s head. The story is told in the first-person singular, so we know what he knows, think what he thinks, and feel what he feels. Including the grief, the desperation, the fear, the confusion, and the hope that someone will get out of this alive. Somehow.
I liked being inside his head. Ishmael is an interesting and still somewhat enigmatic character. I’m looking forward to reading more of his adventures – the next time I need another compelling book and/or cure for a book hangover!