DCI Brendan Moran, still recovering from a severe car accident the year before, is called out to a Catholic boarding school named Charnford Abbey, where one of the monks has been murdered (I accidentally typed ‘monkeys’ instead of ‘monks’ here, which would have been better). The abbot and other monks seem strangely uncooperative. Soon, another body is found, unravelling the ancient secrets of the closed order and blah blah blah.
The story also includes narcolepsy, a group of cunning Romanian squatters, a long-lost love lost to an IRA car bomb, a formerly brilliant surgeon lost to alcoholism, a famous relic, a spaniel, a crucifiction, the inner workings of the Metropolitan Police force, a bank robbery, religious delusions, revenge, an honest-to-god angel, and a fucking secret wall opened with a lever. It’s like a plate of spaghetti at a bad Italian restaurant: lots of different strands that go nowhere, none of the ingredients go together, and a heap of cheap shit is dumped haphazardly on top of it all.
In a way, Black December is almost a bargain: you get at least three books crammed into one. Hunter can’t decide whether he wants to write a thriller, a gothic adventure or a Dan Brown style mystery. I suppose this could have worked, if only because the writing itself is not half bad. He knows how to string a few phrases together. But instead of merging genres, they seem to co-exist in parallel universes. Not only is there too much there, but the separate storylines almost seem oblivious of one another. Also, for the first book in a series, we seem to have missed a lot of back story: Moran’s wife, killed by an IRA car bomb (never mind that he hails from Dublin and not in Belfast, which would have made a lot more sense); his brother, once a promising doctor and now a hopelessly deceptive alcoholic; Moran’s relationship with an attorney. There are so many ways in which Hunt could have tackled this – either drop tantalising hints, choose one or two things to flesh out completely, and you’re well on your way.
I like writing, so I understand it can be hard to make choices, but this book would have been best served if the author had focused on ONE thing and had left the others for different installments, seeing as how this is the first book in a series (with three published installments so far). Instead, the book starts off well, but quickly dissolves into a multitude of storylines, none of them fleshed out properly. There is some promise of a gothic horror story in there, with the relics and the solemn setting, OR a police procedural, and I’m sure a talented author could do both – Tana French would have a blast with this story – but here, it’s little more than hysterical.
The same can’t be said for the characters. Moran is a fairly stereotypical guy, though he’s not all cardboard. His brother is an intriguing, if maddening, character, as are one or two of the monks. The others are all paper thin. As are the female characters; there’s the Whore, the Madonna, and the simpering one who just wants to be loved. This is probably the part of the book I hated the most.
I’m not very keen on reading the rest of the series because this one was pretty bad, yet I do wonder about the sequels. Hunt can write. He just needs to learn how to plot. Perhaps, now that he’s obviously gotten about 80% of his ideas out of the way, the next book might actually be a lot better. Not sure I’m willing to invest in it to find out, but if anyone has, let me know.