The Dark Side by Anthony O’Neill

UnknownThe Dark Side
Anthony O’Neill
Simon and Schuster, 400 pages
Review by Steve Ironside

Online exclusive

This book is undeniably telling a classic noir tale—there’s a hard-boiled, yet soft-hearted police detective, who is faced with an increasingly convoluted series of crimes; there’s a bad guy, whose motives are murky. There’s an authority figure, who despite appearing squeaky-clean, seems very much to be at the heart of everything. There’s even a dame who… well, you know how this genre goes; she’s mysterious, and whether she is what she appears to be is something that our detective worries about more than is healthy. She’s also in a position of power, which complicates matters even more for our poor cop.

The Dark Side is set in Purgatory—a lunar base which is built on Farside, the “dark” side of the moon, and is under the control of a man called Fletcher Brass. He’s an eccentric, driven and charismatic business mogul, who believes that everyone should be allowed to make their own way in—or off—the world. Consequently, Purgatory finds itself home to all the flotsam and jetsam of humanity. If you’re looking for a fresh start, then here is as good a place as any to be.

Our detective’s name is Damien Justus (to rhyme with “Eustace”, not “Justice”). He’s recently arrived in Purgatory, and is having a hard time fitting in—his style is very different to the rest of the laid-back and provincial police department. He is the most talked about thing in Purgatory—his no nonsense approach to crime has marked him out for media attention, and he’s under the spotlight: everyone is waiting for him to screw up. Given that he’s come here for a fresh start as well (it’s noir so yes, there are skeletons in his closet too) it means that he really can’t afford to put a foot wrong.

Meanwhile, far from Purgatory, a sinister android roams the surface of the Moon, seeking something. He’s killing anyone who gets in his way, or disagrees with his beliefs, which seem to be rooted in “The Brass Code” (essentially the wit and wisdom of Fletcher himself) covering such truths as “it’s good to have a rival. It’s even better to crack his skull” and “Friends help you get there. Everyone else is vermin”. The Code stands up well as a satirical distillation of the worst examples of modern business practice—I certainly wouldn’t feel safe working for Brass if this is how he made his fortune.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that the book is intent on setting these two initially disparate stories of salvation and damnation on a collision course, so the main questions become—who is the mysterious android? How and where will he meet up with Justus?

The book is written in the present tense and I’ve always found it a little tricky. From a writer’s point of view it feels like it limits the choices you can make and produces less depth as a result—the momentum of the plot is forced to be relentless, and realisation, not reflection, becomes the order of the day.
As a result, I cared more about the twists and turns of the plot than about the characters; but then again, this is noir—where characters tend towards the stereotypical anyway, and bad things have a habit of happening to them. If I formed an attachment to any of the characters, it might just be something I’ll end up regretting later.

There are things that I enjoyed about this novel—the characters chew the scenery appropriately, the descriptions O’Neill chose create a lively and vivid enough backdrop for Justus’ investigation, and the sly snappy intrigue-laden dialogue is certainly entertaining. There is humour too, usually linked to the killer android’s literal approach to the Brass Code, so it’s very black (indeed almost Vantablack) in hue. The publisher describes The Dark Side as a mash up of Tarantino, Heinlein and Chandler, and he’s not far off the mark, though I’d also say that I’ve been sensing similarities to Hot Fuzz here too, with Justus bearing some resemblance to the fish-out-of-water cop Nick Angel.

Overall, though, my constant battle with the tense meant that I was occasionally getting the feeling that I was missing something, and I spent time re-reading passages in order to catch some of the set-up and gags, which I’ll admit was a little frustrating. I find myself wondering if I would already have rage-quit this book if I wasn’t reviewing it, and I can’t in all honesty say “no”, despite my curiosity about how the story is unfolding.

If you’re a fan of interesting storytelling techniques, or of noir stories in general then The Dark Side is certainly worth giving a go; for myself, I’m unsure whether I’ll ever go back and re-read this in future, or indeed hunt down any sequel to it which might appear.