After reading and not particularly loving the middle installments of J.T. Ellison’s Taylor Jackson series of novels, I’d given up on the series and Ellison. While I enjoy reading novels set in and around Music City, the fun of seeing local real-world landmarks incorporated into the pages of standard procedural had lost its appeal.
So it came as huge surprise to me when I saw Ellison’s latest, A Deeper Darkness on the new books shelves at the library that not only did I pick it up but that that back cover blurb was enough a hook to make me want to give Ellison another shot.
In the months and years following the Nashville floods, coroner Samantha Owen is struggling under a flood of her own. She lost her family in the flood and has been muddling through life since that time. When the mother of an ex-boyfriend calls, asking Sam to come to Washington DC to offer a second opinion on the cause of death of her son, Sam reluctantly agrees. Sam and her ex, Eddie Donovan, had a brief romance while in grad school with Eddie breaking off the romance to return to his first love, the military. Donovan served a couple of tours in the Middle East, married and had two children, but never lost contact with Sam.
When Donovan is killed in apparent car-jacking, his mother Eleanor thinks there’s something more at work and asks Sam to look into it. As Sam probes into Eddie’s death, she discovers a vast conspiracy at work with several members of Eddie’s military team all dying under mysterious circumstances. Working with a local DC detective, Sam begins to unravel the real reason Eddie died and how it all connects to something the DOD is trying to cover up from the team’s time in the Middle East.
If you’re familiar with the Taylor Jackson series, you’ll probably remember Sam Owens as supporting character to the Taylor-universe. Even if you don’t recall this, Sam reflects on how Taylor would react to certain events unfolding in the novel.
Thankfully, many of the weaknesses that turned me off the Taylor Jackson series are downplayed in this novel, though they could rear their ugly head if Ellison decides to begin an on-going series about Sam. Ellison’s novels are always one that demand a quick turn of the page, with fresh revelations, clues and twists coming at just the right pace to keep the reader interested and speculating on how they’ll all fit together. As a procedural novel, Down Among the Darkness is as confident as other, bigger name procedural entries on the market today.
Because Sam is reeling from the death of her family, the novel wisely doesn’t indulge in the romantic subplots that hampered some of the later Taylor novels. There’s still a few hints sprinkled throughout, but at no point does Darkness abruptly shift gears from the central mystery to personal romantic entanglements.
However, for a novel built on Sam’s loss and tragic events surrounding the Nashville floods a couple of years ago, Ellison keeps the revelation of exactly what happened to Sam’s family too far off-stage, to the point that after said specifics are presented in the final pages of the novel, I found myself thinking it would have been better for Ellison to never address them directly on the printed page. Leave it up to the reader to piece together things from Sam’s reactions and growth over the course of the story.
And while Ellison is good, she’s still quite up there in the upper pantheon of great mystery writers that are on my “must read” set of authors like Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman or Elizabeth George. Each of those authors offers compelling, page turning mysteries with on-going characters with complicated and interesting back stories and histories. Ellison has the mystery side down, but so far her characters don’t feel like old friends like Tess Monagahan, Thomas Lynley or Harry Bosch.