Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Microreview [book]: Whitesands by Johann Thorsson

A true creeper 

Thorsson is an Icelandic author and former contributor to Book Riot. His stories have appeared in Fireside Fiction and The Apex Book of World SF 4, among other places. Whitesands is his first novel, published in the US by Headshot Books. It is a supernatural thriller, skirting the line between hard-boiled detective fiction and horror - but approaches the genre in an unusual way. 

Whitesands tells the story of John Dark, a police detective in an unnamed American city. Dark and his partner Monique Moreno were once known as the best of the best, but have been reassigned to desk duty after an unsanctioned attempt to find Dark's missing daughter went wrong. They receive their first true case in months, a bizarre, ritualistic murder whose apparent perpetrator, despite clear physical evidence that he did it, has no apparent motive and zero memory of the deed. They are given the case because it's a slam dunk, an easy way to start rebuilding their reputations. But something about the video footage is off. There is, of course, no question as to whether the man committed the crime - but Dark comes to suspect that something else may be afoot...

I will say no more, because part of the fun is how Thorsson slowly introduces the concept of the supernatural into what up to that point reads like a fairly straightforward, fast-paced work of hardboiled detective fiction. To be honest, I'm a much bigger fan of hardboiled detective fiction than I am of supernatural horror, so I probably would have been perfectly content to let things evolve as they were. In this case, however, the horror elements both compliment and enhance the core thriller narrative. 

There are other details to note as well. For one thing, Whitesands takes place in an unnamed American city. Local color and lore are key components to the American detective novel (think: Chandler's Los Angeles, Hammett's San Francisco). The detectives are also presented in generic terms - their names, "Dark" and "Moreno" signaling with little subtlety that we are firmly in noir territory. But while "generic" is usually a pejorative term, in this case it's set up - since this is decidedly not a generic detective story. 

The book also has excellent pace. At several points, I made myself stop reading so I could better digest what I'd just taken in. But the urge to continue on was constant. This is the kind of book you could happily devour on a long plane ride, but there are definite advantages to taking your time. 

Without giving too much away, Whitesands ends on a cliffhanger - akin to the end of a TV season. I'm fine with that, as I intend to read the sequel when it comes out. But some readers may wish for more resolution, even if major storylines continue. 

All that said, Whitesands is not a perfect book. There are elements, like John Dark's preternatural instincts, that are referred to but not really developed in any way. And Moreno sometimes presents more like a vehicle for Dark's character exposition than a fully-rendered character in her own right - though the hints we do get about her back story are very intriguing. Hopefully this is explored more in later volumes. Finally, though I did enjoy the "Everywherescity, USA" approach to world building that Thorsson takes, there are times when it seems to come less from intentionality and more from a lack of the kind of intimate familiarity that a native or deeply embedded transplant would have. Yet the fact that these moments are rare is also notable. 

Overall, Whitesands is a brisk, enjoyable read that I recommend to fans of both detective fiction and supernatural horror. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the slow introduction of supernatural elements, which is refreshing; +1 for brisk pace

Penalties: -1 for elements that could have been developed further

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention. 


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.