Friday, February 17, 2017

Valley of Lights by Stephen Gallagher (1987): Watching the Detective

When I need to take a break from reading horror, the genre I look to most often is crime and private detective fiction. On and off for years, and mostly on these days, I've built up a small collection of mass-market paperbacks by writers like Cornell Woolrich, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, Dan J. Marlowe, Ross and John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith, Walter Mosley, Jonathan Valin, Charles Willeford, Richard Stark, all in addition to leading figures Cain and Chandler and Hammett of course (some years back I started a blog in that vein—Neat, Clean, Shaved & Sober—but I haven't kept it up, but always mean to restart it!). 

So I was intrigued when I began reading Valley of Lights (Tor Books, Feb 1988) and found it a private detective novel through and through. Can't recall how I'd heard of it or why I bought it recently. British author Stephen Gallagher, who wrote Dr. Who novelizations and other medical/tech thriller-style works, captures that American milieu of cop shops, trailer parks, and skid-row motels and its language well, which isn't that easy (I don't believe Clive Barker quite ever mastered it, and I don't know if James Herbert even ever tried). Gallagher well follows all the detective first-person hallmarks: the hard-boiled insights, the trouble with women, the observations of those he meets and the places they live, and the dogged pursuit of lowlifes. Except this particular lowlife happens to be a body-hopping supernatural being spreading death and mayhem wherever he goes for as long as the being can remember.

This back-cover copy only sets up the first half or so of the novel; then comes a twist that piqued my interest, because I have to say I was not much hooked at all prior. It was all too little too late. Sure, Gallagher can write just fine but the story and pace were tepid; while stakes get higher when the killer kidnaps someone dear to the detective, neither character nor situation elicited much tension and even less horror save for a moment here and there. In its combo of horror and detection it isn't a patch on Progeny of the Adder (1965), Falling Angel (1978),  or Red Dragon (1981).  The ending I admit is disturbing, a bit of vengeance hinted at on this cover of the 1988 New English Library paperback, but again, too little too late. It's a bit of a struggle to even write this review!

The title metaphor works, I'll give it that: lights are lives, of course, lives to be exploited; references to "lights out" and "turned off" and such meaning dead are plentiful, in classic hard-boiled style. The Tor cover art at top reminds me of a computer schematic, however, a hacker floating through cyberspace, but that's a coincidence only. Those are all potential victims. Despite a promising scenario and solid writing, I can't really recommend Valley of Lights to either the serious horror or crime fiction reader.


Gerard Saylor said...

Dang. We are quite at odds over this one.I enjoyed the novel quite a bit. The Phoenix setting was a real draw for me after having lived there for five years starting in 2000.

Also, I really enjoyed most the Denzel Washington film FALLEN which must have been based off the novel. I do wonder if the story idea was stolen from Gallagher.

Adam said...

Weird. I loved this one with a passion but really kinda hated Progeny of the Adder.

Padded Cell said...

I really liked Gallagher's "Valley of Lights" and "The Painted Bride." 
I'm not too fond of "Falling Angel." I liked most of it, but it starts a little slow and I don't like the ending. (I'm wary of all '70s horror novels because of the tendency toward The bad guy wins or Everybody Dies endings.)