Strange Ink by Gary Kemble
Titan Books, pb, £7.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
Harry Hendrick’s life is a mess. After six years, his partner has left him, and he is stuck doing community pieces for a local newspaper because of an expose written when he was still a student. But things get worse when he wakes up with a hangover, a tattoo on his neck he doesn’t remember getting, and the remains of a nightmare about being murdered. The more nightmares Harry has, the more inexplicable tattoos appear on his body. Harry’s investigation into the man in his nightmares leads him on a dark path of war crimes, drugs, and cover-ups that go all the way to the new prime minister and the expose that cost him his career before it had even started.
There were a number of things I liked about Strange Ink. The arrival of the tattoos and the reaction of Harry’s friends and colleagues makes for intense reading as we know they are paranormal occurrences, but everyone else thinks they are part of an early mid-life crisis after his girlfriend leaves him. The story unfolds in two strands, Harry’s waking life and his nightmares. The story of his waking life is linear, whereas as, initially, the nightmare strand is non-linear in the manner of dreams. The reader is forced to interpret the dreams as Harry is. As a reader, I don’t want all the answers up front.
From the beginning, Harry is a weak character. As a student, he wrote a damning piece on a local property developer. He did all the work verifying his sources, his tutors also went through his evidence and were confident enough to run it. But the developer had friends in high/low places, accounts were recanted, evidence went “missing”, and Harry couldn’t compete against the lawyers. This has left him frightened of anything more challenging than local interest work. As the story progresses, he fluctuates between taking control of his life to investigating his dreams, but acting on the results comes from another source. Even the final gambit comes from a third party, Harry doesn’t appear to have changed much.
Strange Ink is billed as a horror, but it felt a bit more like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo crossed with Bourne Identity. Even though Harry is semi-possessed by Rob Johnson, a SAS soldier who stumbled across a war crimes cover-up, that isn’t sinister or fearful. The threat comes from the little guy, Harry, going up against the big guys, the new prime minister, when he’s already been bitten once. It is more a political thriller with paranormal influences than horror. In that respect, I didn’t feel it delivered on its promise.
I also felt the ending was a little too neat. There are no loose ends save for a tattoo on the back of Harry’s neck. It’s hard to see how there could be another book in the series, however a second book, Dark Ink, came out in October. Despite my misgivings about Strange Ink, I am keen to read Dark Ink because I know the horror is light and prepared for a thriller of corruption and lies.