Let’s Get Really, Really Scared

It was a perfect weekend to be terrified.

Everything was going wrong. One of my front teeth snapped off biting into an egg salad sandwich. The man I love told me I was being tiresome for asking him to return my calls. My cat is pooping just about everywhere except in the cat box. And the postman just dropped off a $200 electricity bill to join the $600 bill my dental insurance refused to pay.

Most books wouldn’t work on a weekend like this. 

Christian Moerk’s Darling Jim worked just fine. It was just what the doctor ordered: a thrilling, 300-page reading experience that sadly enough only really lasts for about forty-eight hours. Not because it’s not long enough. Because you’re not given much time for breathing. And those hours rattle past mostly consecutively, because you can’t put this dreadful story down. The book has honestly never been out of reach all weekend, beside the bed, beside the computer, beside the – well, everywhere, and at the pace the story moves, I’m almost done. Nothing else in this house received attention during these two days. Dishes and clothes were not washed. Carpets were not vacuumed. And the cat was thoroughly annoyed by my whimpers and cries.

I’m trying to think of the last time I had such an intense reading experience. I feel like I’ve just been dragged kicking and screaming through a gothic nightmare, an extremely well-written one with three fascinating young sisters at the heart of it, Fiona and the twins, Roisin and Aoife. Trouble is, two of them are dead, horribly murdered right from the first chapter. Fortunately they both wrote in their diaries right up to their grisly ends. Hence the novel’s two main storylines are literally tales from beyond the grave, a story-within-a-story-within-a-story that actually all dovetail together quite nicely and don’t seem extraneous one bit.

The novel opens with poor Desmond, the postman, going crazy from what has just been found in the house at 1 Strand Street in a little town called Malahide, just north of Dublin. So this is why the postman wasn’t being offered tea by nice Mrs Hegarty anymore! Moira Hegarty has been whacked to death with a shovel, her niece Fiona has been stabbed nineteen times, apparently by her aunt, and along with her younger sister has been shackled inside the house in rooms with one-way locks.

All it takes is that first horrific chapter to alert you to the fact that one of the three Walsh sisters is missing from the body count. And then there’s the novel’s dedication, apparently addressing that very sister – “to Aoife, wherever you are.”

Intrigued? I was.

It’s like a gripping gothic Scandinavian mystery written by Hans Christian Andersen in a really bad mood. Two diaries and a frame story in the post office provide the narrative structure for this thrilling, lightning-fast read. The relentless storytelling employs every known hook and trick to keep the reader gasping, with the merciless momentum dragging us right back to what we know from the very beginning, the catastrophic, Greek tragedy ending in the Malahide death house.

Getting there is the scary part, as Moerk demonstrates with effortless skill in this successful Danish novel here superbly translated into English by himself. You read with anxiety, watching these magnificently alive women move toward their fates, captivated by the dangerous, seductive young traveling storyteller, darling Jim, whose appearance in town coincides with the deaths of a number of lovely young women.

But what if the gruesome deaths of the Walsh sisters which open the novel don’t mark the end of the tale? What about that missing sister? What if the tale goes on beyond that nightmarish opening crime scene – what if Niall, the poor young postal clerk who’s just lost his job on the day he finds one of the diaries in the dead letter bin, should try to solve the mystery, should risk his life traveling back to that guilty, suspicious town, and run into – well, someone from the actual tragedy?

I’ve only got fifty pages left…

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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