Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Reader's Diary #498- Dennis Richard Murphy: Darkness at the Stroke of Noon

Shortly after completing Darkness at the Stroke of Noon in 2008, Dennis Richard Murphy died of lung cancer. Murphy was known in crime writing circles primarily as a short story writer and as both recipient and judge of Arthur Ellis Awards. With the posthumous publication of his first and only novel, I'm sure many people wanted it to be great.

And if Canadian crime writing heavy-weights Giles Blunt and Linwood Barclay are to be believed, Darkness at the Stroke of Noon is great. Blunt refers to it as "an intensely atmospheric thriller that belongs on the very top shelf of Canadian crime fiction," while Barclay suggests it is "an instant classic."

I haven't read much crime fiction or many mysteries, but I don't think Murphy's book is great.

Set primarily in the high arctic, it is the story of Sargeant Kennison sent to investigate the mysterious deaths of two archeologists who had been researching Franklin's infamously ill-fated expedition to discover the northwest passage. Of course I loved the setting and and doomed Franklin story as a backdrop, but as I discovered with Dan Simmons' The Terror, that doesn't guarantee an interesting book.

My biggest complaint with Darkness at the Stroke of Noon are the suspects. Murphy spends quite a bit of time developing Kennison's character and I would venture to guess that future Kennison books had been in the works. However, hardly any other of the lesser characters are explored in any real depth, though they are meant to be the suspects. When the mystery is finally solved, I didn't care. He could have pinned the blame on any of the characters and I wouldn't have cared.

Had it not been for the question of motive, I wouldn't have connected with the mystery at all. Fortunately, Murphy was able to throw out some pretty wild theories, giving the book a passing grade. International implications from a failed Arctic voyage that happened two centuries ago? Not just any writer could pull that off.

I also quite enjoyed the journal entries interspersed throughout the book. Written by a crew member aboard the Terror, the sister ship to Franklin's Erebus, the journal and what it promises to reveal, becomes key to understanding the motive behind the murders. Murphy also drew some wonderful parallels and contrasts between the drama of the 19th century and the events as they unfolded in the present day.

Darkness at the Stroke of Noon is not great, but it is good. If you're in the mood for crime fiction with an interesting angle, I'd recommend it.

(Listen to the radio drama here, though be forewarned that some over-the-top performances make it unfortunately cheesy. I doubt this was Murphy's intent, but it is funny.)


Mara Feeney said...

Hi Dennis--I see you are a big fan of northern fiction, so I want to recommend my own new novel set in Nunavut to you. It is titled "Rankin Inlet" and tells the story of a nurse from Britain who accepts a job in that remote community in 1970. She experiences culture shock and loneliness, but eventually she comes to respect local traditions and her life becomes quite entwined with others in the community. More about the book (and author) is at I also posted a one-minute book trailer on YouTube:

By the way, my short story also just won first prize at this weekend's NorthWords festival in Yk. Cheers.

John Mutford said...

Mara: I hope that was a mistake in calling me Dennis-- Dennis is dead and if you've read my post at all, clearly, I'm not he.

So now that we're off to a bad start, I'd still be interested in reading your book. I've lived in Rankin myself and I knew you won the short story contest-- I'm a board member for the festival.