Dark Echo by F G Cottam

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Dark Echo by F G Cottam

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An entertaining read if you like your ghost stories more mysterious than frightening, but a stronger or stranger premise would have added immeasurably to the book's worth.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 368 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks
ISBN: 978-0340953891

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In Rouen in September 1917, a French detachment are guarding the Cathedral. Guarding it and using it as a barracks and still doing their best to treat it as a house of God. After all, you cannot make a fortress out of a place designed to be welcoming.

One night the fog descends, thick and eerie, and reminiscent of the gas attacks in the trenches.

Out of the fog The Americans came grinning… They came on in their doughboy uniforms with their short coats worn over their britches and their spats and shiny leather boots…

Cut to the present.

A self-made millionaire (is there any other kind worth the talking about?) buys a boat. Magnus Stannard was born into poverty and through the school of bullies and the resurrection of boxing taught by a Jesuit priest he'd have fought his way out of it, if he didn't instead learn the skills to make a killing on the stock markets and in the associated worlds of entrepreneurial endeavour.

On an apparent whim, he announces his retirement and confirms his intention to sail his new acquisition across the Atlantic. That he's never so much as steered a Broads Cruiser is a fact that does not go unremarked. More pertinent is the rumour that the Dark Echo, acquired at auction as little more than a half-rotten hulk of a schooner, is and always has been an unlucky boat.

Mariners being among the most superstitious of humanity, unlucky in sailor-speak translates as cursed.

Buying a boat known to be cursed wasn't out of character for Magnus Stannard. It wasn't that he didn't believe in ghosts; he just refused to be bettered by them. Magnus already has his own share of demons even if those closest to him don't know anything about them. Yet.

Martin is not quite the son Magnus had hoped for. His childhood sensitivity and aversion to the pugilist art were almost forgiven when they translated into a perceived calling to the cloth. When it transpired that the vocation for the priesthood wasn't up to resisting the calling of more earthly pleasures, his father simply accepted him as a failure and made the best of it. The relationship was not a close one.

Martin is happy enough however. Not least because of Suzanne. Suzanne (the girlfriend) is a researcher for the BBC – always useful to have the kind of accreditation that will get you plausible access where the rest of us would simply be told to take a hike.

Dark Echo very quickly begins to live up to her reputation. Accidents in the yard where she's undergoing reconstruction become increasingly deadly, until the boat builder wants no more to do with her and alternative arrangements need to be made. Despite the rumours, despite his own misgivings on boarding the vessel in dry-dock; Martin agrees to accompany his father on the trans-Atlantic voyage.

Meanwhile, Suzanne starts to investigate the boat's history. It was built for Harry Spalding, an American with a heroic war record and a glittering interwar career as a playboy on the European circuit, who for reasons not quite clear (but possibly related to the Wall Street crash) eventually committed suicide.

Only, Spalding doesn't seem to be entirely dead.

At least, his hold on the present continues. His hold is sunk in purest evil. And his boat is the key. The boat that two inexperienced seamen with unresolved issues take into some of the most unremitting waters on the planet.

Dark Echo is a ghost story, masquerading as a mystery. Assuming the necessary suspension of disbelief required of such tales, it works brilliantly in all respects but the most important one. The keystone. The whole point of the haunting and the method therefore of resolution and laying to rest is just too cliché. Evil comes in all guises, but in this case its derivation is blasé and its development predictable. A weak fundamental premise undermines the whole.

For those who will enjoy the book and not either (a) see it coming and/or (b) be deeply disappointed when it does, I won't give away the specifics, but a more unusual or obscure or simply more imaginative or creative rationale would have turned a perfectly enjoyable read into something more profound.

That said, it is an enjoyable read. The suspense builds on board ship with a sufficiency of creaking timbers and unexplained weather and non-functioning instruments. Ancient recording devices miraculously work to provide a conduit to converse with the dead.

The lone pair of sailors become increasingly susceptible to the lures of madness, whilst their very lives are put at risk.

Meanwhile, back on land, the detective work of our researcher takes us through Irish politics and the jazz era Brit-style and the Solent equivalent of West Egg all of which meet in the person of Harry Spalding. Unsolved murders. Attempted rape. Reincarnation or merely an uncanny likeness across the generations. Such are the twists and turns of discovery.

And of course, there are the ghosts.

It is – as all sea-going tales should be – a ripping good yarn. The characters have their conveniences (a BBC pass and an easily-bribed archivist, more money than sense, no apparent need to actually earn a living) but beyond that do come across as genuine human beings with hopes and fears and personalities and motivations.

Not one I'd recommend that you immediately rush out and buy – but a suitable addition to the list if you're packing for a holiday on the high seas.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: For a more realistic take on the perils of life under sail try John Boyne's Mutiny on the Bounty. We also have a review of The Waiting Room by F G Cottam.

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Buy Dark Echo by F G Cottam at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dark Echo by F G Cottam at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Dark Echo by F G Cottam at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dark Echo by F G Cottam at Amazon.com.


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