Book Review: Strange Ink by Gary Kemble

“A lovely mash-up of genres, Strange Ink is a great start to what promises to be a cracking new series.”


Horror is a multi-faceted and chimeric beast. Though there are those who argue for narrow, limiting boundaries of what constitutes horror, there is no doubt its reach is wide and varied. It can be quiet or full-on bloody. It can run the gamut between the psychological, supernatural, and all too human. It can aim for literary insight or can revel in its pulpy roots and sense of fun adventure. And sometimes it can be a mesh of other genres, pulling them under its cloak and reinterpreting their tropes and limits. Gary Kemble’s debut novel, Strange Ink, is such a beast, a melding of various different categories into one seamless whole. Though Kemble has published a number of short stories and two novels, he seems to be largely unknown outside of Australia. That’s about to change. Strange Ink is the international release of his first novel, published a few years ago in Australia only, as Skin Deep. And if this first entry in his Harry Hendrick series is anything to go by, readers of dark fiction and occult detectives are in for a treat.

The book opens with a short prologue in which an unnamed man is being buried. But not before his body is mutilated. Yet there’s nothing he can do for it quickly becomes apparent this man is dead. Only … he is aware of all that is happening. From the crude dialogue of his two assailants to their casual discussion of the removal and destruction of his tattoos to insidious allusions about someone called Kyla, it’s obvious something awful has occurred. And what’s also obvious is the tone. Using short, punchy sentences, and lean prose, Kemble is clearly emulating those classic hard-boiled thrillers of old. He writes with the conscious intent of delivering a noir experience. And so, the reader is immediately aware this isn’t going to be a ‘straightforward’ horror read. From the cover to the blurb to the paranormal indications in this opener, one might be forgiven for assuming it is. But the writing shows us we’ve got something else here. It serves both to undermine our assumptions and to drive the story forward. Unless the writer is particularly unsure of what they’re doing, noir writing should always create a sense of headlong rushing. And Kemble manages this magnificently.

We are soon introduced to our “hero”, Harry Hendrick. Washed-up reporter for a local Australian paper and spinning his wheels in life following a break-up, he’s just woken with the mother of all hangovers. The previous night was his friend Dave’s bucks night (stag-do for the uninitiated) and he has no memory of any of it. Least of all the odd tattoo he now sports on the back of his neck. As he tries to pull the memory of getting it, snippets of vague images come. Images and bits of dialogue. We, the reader, immediately recognise pieces of the prologue, but poor Harry is—for now—unaware. Yet we’re not really all that much more informed. Thus it is for most of the rest of the book. Kemble unfolds his narrative like assembling a jigsaw. Each piece he reveals to us—and each new strange tattoo Harry wakes up with—fills in more of the overall picture, but it also makes us want to keep going to find out the rest. It’s a perfect way to construct a novel of this kind, which shares DNA with the best contemporary thriller/crime books. To quote writer Simon Avery, “… mystery stories sort of rely on that gradual removal of layers …”, or in the building up of information. Too much and you risk blowing the end too early, too little and you might frustrate and lose the reader. Happily, neither of those things happens here. There’s so much going on, all of it serving to pull the reader forward, that the book becomes almost the definition of unputdownable. Yet it never feels crammed or rushed.

And speaking of blowing the ending, none of that will happen here. This is a book best read with as little foreknowledge as possible, other than the obvious. Suffice to say, it’s a cracking read. Deftly mixing supernatural horror, violence, international intrigue, it’s the type of thriller Lee Child might pen if he leaned towards the paranormal (though this is much better written). There are even moments for love, though it is the bitter, all-too-human kind of love as opposed to saccharine romance. Kemble gives us a fascinating story that keeps us guessing all the way. He writes believable, flawed characters that immediately seem real. Most of all, he knows when to let the story breathe and when to twist the tension. Hendrick is a great creation—human, jaded, knocked by life and hurting. Yet he’s no burn-out and through the circumstances of the story, regains a sense of purpose and balance. He’s basically a decent guy trying to do his best like most of us. The only quibbles are very minor ones. A number of plot points seem to be revealed to Hendrick too easily, with a little bit of coincidence. Yet even those could be explained away by shadowy forces working in the background to place him in the right moment, supernatural powers exerting their influence.

In theory, this book shouldn’t work; it should be a mess. Yet what Kemble has produced not only works, but never feels anything other than natural and logical within the confines of its story. It moves along at a great pace and we come to really feel for Hendrick and his predicament. We want him to succeed, to get his life back on track. A lovely mash-up of genres, Strange Ink is a great start to what promises to be a cracking new series. Get on this one now, because it promises to become massive.


Publisher: Titan Books
Paperback: 400 (pps)
Release Date: 9 October 2018

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