One of the misapprehensions people have about librarians is that we get to read on the job. We really don’t – our days are spent assisting customers, planning programs and sorting out materials. I do however benefit from working with coworkers and customers who share my passion for reading and bring books to my attention I might otherwise have missed.
The Darkness Knows was one such suggestion made by a coworker who knew I had enjoyed other historical mysteries set between the wars. What really attracted me to the book though was that it is set against the backdrop of a 1930s radio studio. I am often drawn to books set within the entertainment industries and hadn’t come across a radio mystery before.
Vivian Witchell is an actress who has recently graduated from playing bit parts to voicing the part of a detective’s sidekick on The Darkness Knows, a popular radio serial. She took over the part from an actress who left to get married and is working hard to prove that she won the job on her merit as an actress as baseless rumors are circulating that she slept with the station manager while working as his secretary.
The murder victim is Marjorie Fox, a veteran actress who is unpopular with her coworkers and prone to drinking heavily. Viv finds her dead in the station’s lounge, beaten over the head with a bottle. When the Police arrive they discover a note with her body that suggests an insane fan may have been involved and that they may also have an interest in Viv.
Charlie Haverman, a Private Eye who is a consultant for the radio show, is hired to protect Viv. While he wants her to stay safe, Viv convinces him that the only way she will be out of danger is if they can locate the killer together and so the pair begin to investigate the case themselves.
The most successful part of The Darkness Knows is its depiction of the world of 1930s radio. Honigford seems to know that world well and includes details that bring it to life, not only in terms of the process of recording but also what it meant to be a radio star in that period in terms of the rivalries that might develop and how publicity was handled (such as the idea of staging dates between co-stars). In that regard I found it to be well-observed and convincing.
The novel’s protagonist, Vivian, is another example of the wealthy woman choosing to live an unconventional lifestyle trope that seems so common in recent historical mysteries. While I quite liked Vivian and certainly did not mind this characterization, I do think it requires some additional explanation or backstory to explain why she doesn’t want to conform to her mother’s plan for her or why she is so attracted to the idea of working in radio.
The second lead, detective Charlie, feels similarly loosely defined for much of the novel though I think his motivations and interests become clearer as the two characters get to know each other. The pair establish a Gable and Colbert-style bickering relationship that is clearly meant to be suggestive of romantic attraction. I am not sure that I found that aspect of their relationship completely convincing yet but I did at least buy Charlie’s jealousy towards another character and I do see the potential there for this relationship to grow in subsequent installments of the series.
The secondary characters make up an interesting mix of radio types. Almost everyone has some reason to dislike Marjorie so most of these characters are potential suspects and while some stand out more than others, I appreciated that the motivations are varied, credible and clear.
Turning to the mystery itself, I think that the initial scenario Honigford crafts is interesting and I appreciated that she provides a strong incentive for Viv to want to investigate what is happening. Similarly I enjoyed much of the process of conducting the investigation, particularly a sequence in which the sleuths snoop around the victim’s home. The action feels pretty varied and I did feel unsure of who the killer would turn out to be for much of the novel.
I was rather less impressed however by the way in which the killer’s identity is revealed as I think an argument might be made that Viv does not really solve the case herself but rather stumbles onto the answer. Much of the solution is gifted to her by the killer and so that solution neither feels fair or completely satisfying for those who want to play along and solve the case for themselves, reading more like an adventure as it reaches its conclusion.
That wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when I picked up the book though I was entertained for much of it. The setting is fantastic and while I wanted a little more backstory and character exploration, I did enjoy the time I spent with Viv.