Mark T. Conard Dark as Night Reviewed by Terry D'Auray

Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

Dark as Night

Mark T. Conard


US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-9724412-3-9

Publication Date: February, 2004

285 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: April 26, 2004

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004





Mark T. Conard's clever and original first crime novel, 'Dark as Night', places the reader inside a snowball where we can watch it as it gradually builds up speed and ride along with it as it careens uncontrollably downhill at a breakneck pace. The ride is a memorable one, made in the company of an assortment of characters who stretch the limits of stupidity, morality, and credibility with madcap mayhem and more than a little nourish sensibility. Make that snowball a black one.

Morris White is a sous-chef at a top-rated Philadelphia French restaurant, having cooked his way up the ladder from an impoverished past of juvenile crime. He aspires to open a restaurant of his own and to a relationship with the lovely restaurant manager, Vicky Ward. But Morris' surly half-brother, Vince, has just been released from prison, after serving a three-year sentence for a jewelry robbery. Morris wants to keep Vince from renewing his criminal contacts; Vince wants to avenge his nasty prison rape. What ensues is a crime spree fueled by revenge, greed, misdirection and just plain old stupidity that gets ever more wildly out of hand.

Conard populates 'Dark as Night' with a large cast of characters and he deftly and skillfully endows each with a full measure of personality. Conard creates three cops, each finely described - one a bigoted drunk, one a crooked, drug-crazed renegade, and the third a buttoned-down, ambitious good-guy. He's equally facile with the characterization of the two females - Vicky Ward, smart, sexy, and blue blood, and Eva Beal, manipulative, sexy, and blue-collar. But it's with petty gangsters and low-level criminals that Conard's characterization truly excels. Lenny, errand boy for gangster Johnny Stacks, is long on ambition, but seriously short on brainpower, obsessed with gangster garb (dressing all in black) and finding just the right nickname (Lenny Deuces). Vicious Mo, sleepy-eyed and quiet, is Stack's right-hand-man, always decked out in a one-size-too-small powder blue suit. And there's the massively obese Stacks himself, a scatologist's delight, who runs his South Philly bookmaking operation from an Italian restaurant, never too far from the next feeding.

Conard takes the reader inside the minds of all these characters, however twisted, and in many cases that's cramped quarters indeed. Both Lenny "Deuces" and Vince's friend Billy Hope make dumb and dumber seem not quite dumb enough. It's to Conard's credit that these characters push right to the edge of absurdity, but never cross it. It's equally to his credit that other characters, not stupid but certainly morally bereft, are equally believable and that Morris, the protagonist, is a likable, caring, genuinely good guy who finds himself in with some pretty nasty company.

'Dark as Night' is a quick-paced violent novel, with gross-outs and shoot-outs a plenty. What William Goldman did for dental drills in 'Marathon Man', Mark Conard does for Black & Decker drills in one particularly grizzly scene in 'Dark as Night'. But it is also a very funny novel in its noirish way - funny not because of clever twists of phrase, but because of the very clever twists of character and 'til-the-last-page twists of plot. Conard controls the line between the believable and the outlandish with the firm hand of a true chef, creating a terrific first novel that mixes wild Philadelphia noir with just a touch of sucre blanc.

Uglytown does its usual excellent job in producing this novel. In keeping with the theme of 'Dark as Night', the opening list of "what this book is about" and "who this book is about" are each labeled as a "Menu". And both are as entertaining and clever as the book itself.