I absolutely loved this book. Set in 1917, Let Darkness Bury the Dead is a moving, compelling, textured portrayal of Toronto at the height of World War I. As the book begins, Detective William Murdoch is at the train station to pick up his son, 20-year-old Jack who has come home from the war to recuperate from an injury. Jack is accompanied by his fellow soldier Percy; both are dealing with PTSD and haunted by the things they’ve been through. As Jack and Murdoch head home, Jack sees a dog and muses about a similar dog he’s seen in the war, and how it met a gruesome end from crossfire.
Shortly after Jack’s return, a young man is found murdered. Then another. And soon it appears a serial killer is loose in Toronto. The common thread: all the victims were granted exemptions from military service. One of the victims had a book with a white feather tucked inside — a symbol of cowardice handed out by women to men who didn’t enlist. (I learned that from a Downton Abbey episode, and Murdoch himself laments the practice, as there are many valid reasons a man may need to stay behind from the war.) Another victim was found with a yellow cross painted on his back — the colour of cowardice, a detective on Murdoch’s team points out.
Let Darkness Bury the Dead is, on the surface, a straightforward murder mystery, but the question of the killer’s identity is almost secondary to the pain and sorrow and anger that permeates the characters’ lives because of the war. The novel is absolutely steeped in the atmosphere of World War I, and its impact on the both the people sent to fight and the people left behind. Jack and Percy’s PTSD feels real, and the nightmares both live with are subtly yet horrifically depicted. There was also a huge debate about the war itself, and Jennings does a beautiful job of humanizing both sides. On one hand, there are people vehemently opposed to the war, including activists for peace like Jack’s love interest Fiona, but also families terrified of losing their main breadwinner and mothers worried about their sons. And on the other hand, there are people who want to support the war efforts, and notably, it’s not that they necessarily agree with the war itself, but they want to protect their families back home, or keep their sons safe abroad, or most movingly, they want the risks and the deaths their families are going through to mean something. Even the killer’s motivations are complex and difficult to parse, and the eventual reveal of their identity has emotionally devastating consequences.
I’m familiar more with the TV show Murdoch Mysteries than the book series that started it all, so I can’t say how well this fits with the rest of the series. I’m just glad that the book Murdoch’s deceased wife is named Amy and not Julia, as I really like Hélène Joy’s character on the TV show. As my first (possibly second?) foray into the Murdoch books, Let Darkness Bury the Dead is beautifully written, with complex, captivating characters. While the mystery itself is compelling, it’s the World War I atmosphere that pulses from the page, and makes this world come to life. I can’t — and to be honest, don’t really want to — begin to imagine the fear and uncertainty of living in that time period, but Jennings brings her characters to life with empathy and care. I highly recommend this book.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.