Mystery read surveys dark territory

Darrell
Darrell Squires
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Mo Hayder is a mystery writer known for exploring the dark side of the human condition and its capacity for twistedness.

Good examples are The Devil of Nanking, The Treatment, and Birdman. He latest novel, Pig Island"combines murder, allegations of Satanism against a cult, and speculations about the existence of some sort of sea creature rumoured to inhabit the lonely beaches of the novel's namesake. Is it real or a hoax?

Mo Hayder is a mystery writer known for exploring the dark side of the human condition and its capacity for twistedness.

Good examples are The Devil of Nanking, The Treatment, and Birdman. He latest novel, Pig Island"combines murder, allegations of Satanism against a cult, and speculations about the existence of some sort of sea creature rumoured to inhabit the lonely beaches of the novel's namesake. Is it real or a hoax?

These elements have the makings of an intoxicating mix for any mystery fan, and they represent quite a challenge for Hayder in constructing a narrative which attempts to join human dysfunctionality and ugliness and our fascination with popular myth and legend.

As a hook for attracting readers it can hardly fail, but does Hayder manage to weave these themes together in a way that doesn't compromise credibility?

The setting is bleak - a remote island off the west coast of Scotland. And Hayder's use of dark and heavy atmosphere creates an almost crushing sense of dread and ennui, a sort of creeping discomfort for the reader.

The novel is told from the first person point of view, and the narrator is Joe Oakes, a rather cynical, hard-bitten, seen-it-all journalist who specializes in investigating - then debunking - popular myths. If there's a legend, an unexplainable occurrence, or a mysterious video circulating on Internet, Oakes is the one you can count on to get to the bottom of things and explain it all.

Oakes' style of telling the story is slangy, sometimes a little too casual and flippant, but this is counterbalanced by his self-deprecating attitude. He's serious in his approach to his work, and a professional, but knows enough that he can afford not to take himself too seriously.

At the start of Hayder's thriller, Oakes arrives in Craignish on the west coast of Scotland to visit a reclusive cult, the Psychogenic Healing Ministries, on remote Pig Island. Oakes hopes to investigate the supposed existence of a half-animal, half-human creature distantly and briefly caught on a tourist's video camera.

He's also drawn by the tantalizing prospect of settling a long-held grudge against the cult's founder, charismatic cult leader Malachi Dove, who barricades himself in his compound on Pig Island - granting interviews and inviting the media on only a sporadic and selective basis.

Oakes' investigative skills are put severely to the test after a violent confrontation - one which also leaves him shaken by way of the event's disturbing nature.

Hayder is one of many mystery writers working today who seem to be in competition with each other in their depictions of graphic violence and psychological trauma, and to be as generally unsettling to readers' senses as possible.

This novel is gruesome enough to appeal even to horror fans, but it portrays a strong sense of place and locale, with just enough detail to create effective imagery. And there's a great plot twist at the story's end.

It's an utterly compelling story if you like your mysteries served up espresso strength. And it is very much to Hayder's credit that she structures her novel around themes which turn our heads in demanding that we consider and try to understand contemporary society's attitude toward secrecy and publicity, belief and skepticism, illusion and reality.

Darrell Squires is assistant manager of Public Information and Library Resources Board, West Newfoundland-Labrador division

Geographic location: Pig Island, Scotland, Craignish

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