I started reading A Dark Time in much the same way I approach all independently published novels these days: with lots of trepidation, some curiosity, and just a bit of optimism. I’m happy to report that Dennis Bradford did not disappoint me. A Dark Time was a unique murder mystery that did not go in the direction I was expecting.
Max Stefansson is a college history professor who is approached one day by a man with a strange request: his granddaughter is missing and he wants Max to find her. Elizabeth Brandt was a student in one of Max’s classes, and although he has no experience in detective work, Max agrees, for a fee, to try to locate Liz. After interviewing several family members and checking in with the local sheriff, he borrows a friend’s retired police dog and searches the land around the horse stables where Liz spent most of her time riding. With very little effort, he manages to locate her body. What follows is a tense and surprising account of what happened to Elizabeth Brandt, as Max uncovers family secrets, falls in love with a member of the Brandt family, and battles his own demons on the road to justice.
Aside from the stellar writing, what I really loved about this book was its intelligence. Bradford is a Ph.D. and has a Wellness Consulting business and integrates his thoughtful philosophies into his story. His characters are just as smart as he is, and it was a pleasure reading about people who actually have stimulating conversations. Two of my favorite characters were Will and Ann, a couple that live in the same apartment building as Max (The three of them are co-owners of the building.) Will smokes a pipe twice a day and they routinely listen to classical music. When Max questions the family members for clues that might lead to the truth, he meets Liz’s aunt Irene, a stunner of a woman who also happens to possess intelligence as well as beauty. She speaks Greek and knows that Wagner is the music on the CD player. Their relationship didn’t do much to move the story along, but I felt it was a nice layer that added depth to Max’s character.
Another favorite character of mine was Laura, Liz’s precocious and worldly teenage sister. Early in the story, Max picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be Laura, and even though he tries to scare her by explaining how dangerous hitchhiking is, Laura blithely ignores him. He later meets her again at the Brandt house, and she becomes one of his biggest motivations for seeking justice at the end of the book.
Bradford’s got bad guys in his story as well. The worst of the lot is Liz and Laura’s father Brian, a horrifying individual who has secrets aplenty and is a key player in one of the book’s most shocking chapters. Max follows a hunch and sets up a meeting with Brian to discuss real estate, which they both have in common, then handily sets a trap to make sure his hunch is correct. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Brian is someone you wouldn’t want to spend time with, especially if you are female.
Max himself is an interesting and unusual character. He is clearly a man who believes in doing good and being honest, but some of his actions are puzzling. He owns and carries a gun, and he seems well-versed in forensics and basic detective work, which both seem uncharacteristic for a college professor. But although he has a long conversation with Irene about right versus wrong (which I admit, I skimmed because it didn’t really move the story forward), he is a man with a strong sense of justice who believes he is doing the right thing, and he proves by the end of the book to have the desire to carry out some pretty shaky plans to keep his friends safe.
A Dark Time is not your typical murder mystery, and it’s not your typical indie book either. Filled with atmosphere, a well-defined sense of time and place, interesting and uncommon characters and enough tension and surprises to keep the pages turning, I highly recommend Bradford’s debut novel.
Many thanks to the author for supplying a review copy.
You can purchase A Dark Time here.