Photographer Cass Neary is already wanted by the police for questioning when she receives a suspicious job offer that sends her from Helsinki to Iceland… with murder following her every step.
I’m familiar with Elizabeth Hand’s dark fantasy novels, so I was excited to see how her writing translated into another genre. I have not yet read Generation Loss, her first thriller, but its sequel Available Dark shows that whether she’s writing fantasy or mystery, the essence of Hand’s writing remains rich and complex like the best coffee. The thriller made me think one of her dark fantasies had been dosed with amphetamines.
As well as an exciting, gruesome thriller, Available Dark is a mediation on noir, in which moral boundaries are smeared and blended. The protagonist, photographer Cassandra Neary, is even more morally compromised than most noir heroes. She came of age in the punk era and was briefly famous for her only published book of photos, Dead Girls, but since then has been on a downward slide fueled by drugs and loss; she notes that after her single success, her whole life has been “aftermath.” Here she is at the novel’s opening.
In November I’d headed north to an island off the coast of Maine, hoping to score an interview that might jump- start the cold wreckage of my career as a photographer, dead for more than thirty years. Instead, I got sucked into some seriously bad shit. The upshot was that I was now back in the city, almost dead broke, with winter coming down and even fewer prospects than when I’d left weeks earlier. I dealt with this the way I usually did: I bought a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, cranked my stereo, and got hammered. When I finally came to, it was dark. Sleet rattled against a greasy window.
She notes later,
I’d spent too much time alone, skating on alcohol and speed, not noticing the ice beneath me was rotten and the water killing cold.
Neary’s life isn’t about to improve. She’s offered a good amount of cash to evaluate a set of macabre photographs with incredible artistic value but questionable subjects in Finland. The deal tangles her into a whole set of murders linked to ancient northern religions and the Norwegian black metal music scene.
Most of the lyrics were in Norwegian, but I suspected I’d have no trouble understanding them if I’d been a fifteen-year-old boy with anger-management issues. Whatever he was saying, he seemed to mean it. The guitar work sounded like an electric razor jacked on ice. I gave the band props for that before removing the album from the turntable.
The desolate, sere Nordic landscape, described in Hand’s extraordinary prose, is a constant background buzz to all facets of the story, and the literal darkness of an Arctic winter emphasizes the darkness of the mystery plot. However, there’s always the hope of some kind of redemption for Cass and her extraordinary vision. She can see beauty in loneliness and pain, and make us see it, too. Her point of view can make us reconsider ours.
… through it all I’d always had the Lower East Side and the shadowy image behind my retinas of what it had once been: that 3:00 a.m. wasteland I’d fallen in love with when I was eighteen, shattered syringes and blood on the lip of a broken bottle, guitars and drunken laughter echoing through an alley where kids nodded out while I shot their pictures.
…The way something was always moving at the corner of my eye; the way the city was always moving, morphing into something new and terrible and beautiful.
…Photography is the art that justifies atrocity: war photography, pornography, memento mori, footprints left on a landscape where the last great auk died. None of us is innocent.
If you have a taste for noir, for gorgeous prose, or for simply wonderful novels, I highly recommend Available Dark.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.