I credit Margot with teaching me how to admit to not liking a book, giving me strategies for outlining why I think a book is flawed. While I still tend to err on the side of tactfulness — finding something good to say, finding someone else who thinks better of the book than I do, or simply not reviewing at all — I’m getting better with practice. Like Margot, I’m thankful to and admire reviewers who’ve been candid about books that they’ve found to be real disappointments.
But it still floors me when I don’t like a book everyone else is raving about, making me feel like the odd one out.
When a popular book disappoints me, I turn to Honey Brown to restore my faith. Earlier this year, I read Brown’s debut novel Red Queen, a gripping tale of what unfolds when a beautiful woman inserts herself into the refuge two brothers have built in the bush to survive a deadly virus.
Dark Horse opens Christmas morning as Sarah Bernard, recently divorced from a cheating husband, leaves her dream property — now on the market — on horseback for the seclusion of Devil Mountain in Victoria’s Mortimer Ranges. The ‘dark horse’ she rides is Tansy, ‘sulky, moody, headstrong, bursts of bad behaviour, while still fragile inside, quick to feel lost and rejected.’ From the onset, you wonder whether the descriptions of Tansy might apply equally to Sarah.
Sarah battles extreme weather including flash floods before reaching the shelter of a workman’s camp alongside the historic Hangman’s Hut, which is under renovation. But her solitude is interrupted when a strange man appears, stuck in a bog. Handsome and charming, with an apparently damaged knee, Heath doesn’t appear dangerous. But as circumstances bring them closer together, Sarah’s suspicions grow.
The quality of the writing puts Brown’s thrillers in a class of their own. Dark Horse shares with Brown’s other novels a tense, erotically charged, unpredictable atmosphere — one in which the hunted might become the hunter. Brown keeps you guessing, tapping into your primal fears while at the same time making you question the assumptions underlying those fears.
There’s a twist in Dark Horse, which has impressed many readers, though I have to confess — at the risk of going against the grain again — this was the least satisfying part of the novel for me. Perhaps I’m too conservative about the ‘golden rules’ of crime fiction in thinking it should be possible for an astute reader to spot the clues if they pay close enough attention. Or perhaps I’m not as astute a reader as I’d like to believe.
Still, Dark Horse is one hell of a ride — tense, atmospheric, engrossing and erotic. Read it to see how good a thriller can be.
Dark Horse by Honey Brown (2013) is published by Penguin / Michael Joseph.