Dark Arts

Review by Kate Horsley

Karen Taylor’s Dark Arts is a page-turning mystery, combining well-crafted characterisation with a lively plot. The prequel to her debut, Fairest Creatures, it sees “grieving artist Rachel Matthews return home to Penzance in the winter of 2018, to find herself at the centre of a series of crimes connected to the Cornish arts community. DI Brandon Hammett, a Texan with Cornish roots, is leading the investigation. Dark Arts features many of the same characters as Fairest Creatures and provides further insights and intrigues into the rich cast of players.”     

In the names of some of its characters, including series detective, DI Brandon Hammett, this novel gives sly nods to the traditions of classic detection and film noir, playing with the familiar ingredients of the cosy mystery – intrigue, suspense, romance and murder – but Taylor adds a humour and freshness that’s all her own.  

One of the real strengths of this gripping book is the way the Cornish setting is evoked, not just as a backdrop for the action, but as an affectionately drawn character: 

“She looked past him towards St Michael’s Mount in the east. The medieval fortress was drenched in blood-red light. An hour earlier it had been dark as a shadow, rising from the water like some mythical seabird. To the west was the hilly fishing town of Newlyn, its white brick houses stacked like cartons of fudge.” 

The novel opens with evocations of the Solstice Montol festival in Penzance, showing us “lines of masked revellers and musicians. Dickensian figures in dark cloaks and top hats lined the pavements.” Into this colourful and chaotic scene is thrust main character, Rachel Matthews – daughter of painters Lawrence and Lizzie Matthews and an artist herself. Rachel’s grief over the loss of her young son, Oliver, is poignantly evoked and this, along with an encounter with a lost love, drives much of her – often emotionally intense and heartfelt – plot arc. Equally well drawn is Rachel’s tender and sometimes anxious relationship with her eccentric mother, Lizzie, whose affliction with ‘happy dementia’ is handled delicately. Like the Cornish setting, the novel’s art world milieu adds rich detail to the story: 

“Rachel braced herself as she followed her mother into the studio. This room, at least, hadn’t changed one bit since Lawrence ascended to the great garret in the sky. The smell of turps and oils, the half-filled paint pots with their congealed lids, the massive old wooden table which ran the length of the room, covered in smears and spills, was as it should be. As it always was.” 

Taylor interweaves Rachel’s narration with that of series protagonist, DI Brandon Hammett, who must delve into a shadowy world of art dealing and drug smuggling to solve a series of deaths. Rachel’s arrival in Penzance coincides with the first of these crimes – but is she involved, responsible even? She proves to be a bold and resourceful investigator, someone who Brandon can confide in. Both Rachel and Brandon “seek recovery and purpose. Rachel uses work at a local school to help her heal. Recently widowed, Brandon looks to set the world to rights and protect his hometown. A town under attack. Violent county lines drugs runners compete with local dealers and smugglers, and the Penzance arts community is rocked to the core.”   

Karen Taylor is a UEA alumni crime writer whose latest novel Fairest Creatures was longlisted for the 2020 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger. Born in London, Karen is also a journalist and editor with wide ranging experience, covering anything from business to lifestyle. She divides her time between Penzance and London.  

Dark Arts is a mystery that keeps the reader gripped to the very end. For any of our readers who haven’t yet enjoyed this or Fairest Creatures, we highly recommend the whole series.