If there is a leitmotif that runs through the crime thriller, it is grime. Plunging into the depths of human evil, the griminess of the genre and its often damaged characters reminds us that grit and violence are part and parcel of human life, even though we might wish that weren't the case.
So it is with Find You in the Dark, the first thriller by author Nathan Ripley. Dirt is always a problem – a thing to be disturbed in just the right way, gotten rid of, or somehow escaped. Where the novel differs from others is that the grime that pervades the text is always counterbalanced by a sterile cleanliness – and at each point that the dirt is cleared away, what is revealed underneath is somehow more disturbing than what came before.
The book centres on tech mogul Martin Reese, who retired early and rich and now spends his spare time sifting through arcane clues as to the final whereabouts of young women murdered by serial killers. He then anonymously relays the location to police, claiming to be giving peace to still-grieving families, all the while admonishing the cops for their dereliction of duty.
It is at the outset an invocation of a mind not quite as clean as Martin's ostensible intentions, and as the novel unfolds it becomes clear that the protagonist is far from a mere good Samaritan. Few details drive this home as clearly as the fact that Reese is married to Ellen, whose own sister was taken by a serial killer 20 years prior to the events of the novel.
The inevitable complication is that in one of Reese's meticulous digs – each treated with an almost disturbing methodical precision – where only one 20-year-old corpse should have been, there is also a fresh one. Someone else calls in the find to police and claims it is time to stop merely finding bodies, and instead making them.
Teasing out both who is behind the new killings and the attempt to frame Reese drives the plot – and Ripley does an effective job of deploying Reese as an unreliable narrator. As a reader, one's loyalty will be tested – and possibly pushed over the edge. Reese is always on the brink of revealing himself as either a better or worse version of himself, and though the text jumps perspective between characters, one never quite gets a clear, moral evaluation of Reese – that task left up to the reader, with an effectively morally ambiguous ending.
Find You in the Dark is a fast-paced book that one can blow through in a weekend, but it isn't exactly a beach read. It is more akin to dark British crime TV dramas such as Broadchurch or Luther, satisfyingly sinister and unsettling in their explorations of the violent possibilities of humanity, better suited to a dull, rainy Sunday than to sand and surf. The book does have it downsides, though, particularly the dialogue, which especially in the first half of the book can feel amateurish and clunky. The ending arrives suddenly, too, and perhaps a touch too neatly – yet it remains satisfying despite that.
Beyond its status as entertainment, however, it is difficult not to notice the allegory at work in the novel: Here is a Silicon Valley tech mogul convinced he is doing the right thing until it is revealed just how damaging his good intentions have been. The book is filled with dirt of a more digital kind, too: Characters are tracked using technology, and it's a timely reminder of how tech has shifted from gleaming jewel to troubled contemporary mess, and of how privacy has changed in just a short couple of decades.
Of course, if a reckoning with social media desperately needs literary treatment, the other hot-button issue is identity, and here Find You in the Dark provides one more wrinkle: Nathan Ripley is in fact Toronto writer Naben Ruthnum. The pen name is of particular significance since Ruthnum's previous book was Curry, an exploration of so-called "currybooks" – immigrant fiction or narratives about cuisine that are unfairly grouped under identity, according to Ruthnum, and do readers and writers a disservice by unifying that which is actually quite disparate and diverse.
The pen name is thus an attempt to escape the inevitable baggage that comes with being a minority writer – something that my mere mention of the fact undercuts.
It is a fraught issue, however. When one is a minority in an English-speaking country, an occasional thing you run into is someone who insists on pronouncing your name in an anglicized way, so that Sandhu becomes Sandoo, or Ruthnum becomes Ripley. I used to find this grating: Why should these people have to contort themselves and their monikers to the majority? Why not just ask people to learn how to pronounce the name properly, or do away with their prejudice?
But it's difficult to hold such a hard line when the dirt of prejudice and unfair categorization still sits like a layer over the literary world. It's not that the need to change a name is any less frustrating. It's just that it becomes more understandable, after the exhaustion of fighting bias for decades of one's life sets in. Sometimes you don't want to make the name the thing – you just want to get on with life: raise your kids, get a job, or in the case of one Nathan Ripley, write a cracking good crime thriller with a few interesting resonances, and have it be seen as that and only that. On that front, Find You in the Dark succeeds admirably.
Navneet Alang is a technology and culture journalist based in Toronto.