This murder investigation is set in the bomb-strewn streets of London 1940 and introduces an interestingly damaged detective. Johnny Hawke, ex-policeman, joined up early to fight in the war but almost immediately was invalided out. He can’t return to the force, nor can he fight for his country. Emotionally and physically compromised, a man without an obvious future in a country which might not survive intact, he strives to utilise his skills and experience as a private detective.
Author David Stuart Davies has invented a likeable protagonist, someone obviously flawed but a man of grit and character – and also someone with a gently self-deprecatory attitude and a drily witty turn of phrase. The opening chapters are littered with snappy throwaway observations, as befits a gumshoe PI who enjoys an afternoon at the flicks.
The investigation in this novel is pretty straightforward. There’s a murdered young woman whose distraught parents can’t believe that she led a parallel life as a good time girl. The obvious suspect, her pimp, plainly didn’t do the evil deed but the flat-foot police detectives are happy to see him swing if it closes the case for them quickly. Hawke is conveniently given a list of her regular customers – very definitely the usual suspects! – and we join him on a series of interviews involving her boss, an aging film star and a young runaway who may have witnessed a vital scene. No one is telling all the truth: not the dead girl’s best friend, nor the street urchin with whom Hawke (himself an orphan) identifies. There’s more than enough going on to neatly obfuscate the answer but if you like solving a mystery yourself then you should be able to piece the puzzle together before the big reveal…
Perhaps more enjoyable than the central plot is the entertaining interpretation of London in the early years of the war. Clubs are still swinging in muted fashion; rationing and shortages create increasingly grey and unappetising meals at Hawke’s regular café; society can barely struggle along as normal never mind take care of waifs, strays and badly-treated woman, or chase down deserters and black marketeers. It’s all credibly rendered, atmospheric and interesting.
One aspect which could have been better developed was Hawke’s disability. (Look away now if you want to avoid a minor spoiler). He’s lost the sight in one eye which has a substantial impact on anyone’s perception and behaviour, yet this aspect of his life is barely mentioned after the initial intro. Losing peripheral vision and depth perception could be an edgy and interesting angle to explore, one which puts his at a significant disadvantage in tricky situations and which would also make him psychologically vulnerable. A missed opportunity, I think: one which could have added significantly to the tension and peril of the protagonist.
Overall then, Forests Of The Night (a strange title which doesn’t really capture the essence of the book) is an easily accessible read. Nothing wildly challenging, and it lacks the razor-edge tension of Alan Furst or the bitter acerbic wit of Bernie Gunther. It’s a lot less bleak than Furst, for sure, leaning more towards murder-mystery than outright noir. A thoroughly enjoyable read, and I’ll definitely look out for the next Johnny Hawke investigation.