The Dark Side of the Road is the first novel in Simon R. Green’s Ishmael Jones series. Simon R. Green is a well-known author hailing from England. He is known for writing a number of series including the Deathstalker, Hawk & Fisher, Nightside, and Ghost Finders series. The Dark Side of the Road was first published in 2015.
I own the Deathstalker series novels and I have read three Nightside novels. I generally find Green’s writing to be a wee bit darker and a little less enjoyable than comparable authors. I recall that some readers recommended the Nightside series to fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden series. Something that I think is somewhat similar betwixt the two series is the lead characters in both are somewhat snarky, rather jaded, loners who seem to be the only experts in a field of interest comprised of one member.
To be honest, these types of characters are nearly archetypal categories in certain genres. They are necessary elements in a specific novel. This feels both comfortable and also saddening. I do not mind admitting that sometimes you want to read a novel that contains character-forms that are already familiar. Fantasy novels (particularly traditional epic fantasy novels) are rife with examples. Let me give an example; the group of archetypal characters has a quest. The group always consists of: the comedy, the wizard, the brute, the knight, and the Everyman. Some readers treat this negatively. I admit that I sometimes find it horribly unoriginal and tiring, too. However, on occasion it is just easily comfortable to know who the characters are before you open the cover.
So, when I say that Ishmael Jones is one of those characters who is a loner, drinks moodily at the pub, answers questions with questions/without giving any data, and prides himself on being without roots or hindrances – you know exactly the character I mean. Immediately the reader has to confront the name of the character. The first line of the novel is: “Call me Ishmael. Ishmael Jones.”
At this point, it can go one of two ways… A.) The reader can guffaw and snort with the author at the painfully obvious reference AND think this is a neat name for a character; B.) The reader can be disgusted by the over-the-top obnoxiousness of this line and name. Honestly, I was in the second group. I like sarcasm and and satire, but this is just too much.
Anyway, this story takes place at Christmastime in rural Cornwall. Green sets the whole story (which is a total of three days) in the middle of a horrendous blizzard. I read this book at the start of January and I recommend readers keep this one for December and January as well. It helps reading the thing if it is also wintertime. This is no beach read and reading it at Myrtle or Clearwater will ruin the effect because the blizzard is providing the “locked-room” constraint to the novel.
Jones is invited to spend Christmas at a country manor house with the Colonel and the Colonel’s family. Jones has known the Colonel for fifteen years, but their relationship has been solely work-focused. They work, of course, in a secret, underground, shadowy world. The Colonel’s invite to come to Cornwall, therefore leaves Jones agitated and worried. Jones is not the sort of person you invite anywhere unless there is serious business to be handled.
Throughout the first chunk of the novel, Green repetitively drops “hints” (if by hint we mean sledgehammer) about how Jones is abnormal. He is special. He is a little more skilled, robust, knowledgeable than he should be. He is well-trained and heavily experienced – at whatever shadowy and mysterious tasks he does.
And for the first half of the novel, the storyline is slow. After all the whole novel is only spanning three days of time. So, the first half spends a lot of time setting the scene and meeting the characters. Naturally, Jones is an aloof house guest who provides a sketch of each of the other members at the party. Some of this is very info-dumpish and heavy-handed. Its not good writing – there is no nuance whatsoever. But it is vaguely interesting. Because the story feels a lot less like Nightside and a lot more like a mystery novel.
And go ahead and admit it with me….. a blizzard at Christmas in a rural Cornwall manor house with a mystery afoot…. is definitely something you want to read even if the writing is hack and weak.
The second half of the novel is where the action takes place. And events transpire quickly, once they get going. The novel is very much like Clue – but with some supernatural elements. And I need to share here that the events do get very gory at times. So, it is not a light and bright read. There is some gore that will bother the best imaginations that read this story.
The ending opens the knowledge that this will be a series. But as a standalone, this is okay – it is a completed, closed unit in itself. Will I read the second? Oh sure, but not because it is great novel. I will read on because it is such easy reading to find out what happens next to a character who, in his own way, is quite unique – even if a lot of tropes cover his landscape. The secret organization is actually the real hook Green got me with….
In some ways, this is a genre-mixing of a couple ideas. Tropes and archetypes abound. It is not nuanced or complex. But it is interesting, fast-reading, and entertaining.