The Broken Ones by Stephen M Irwin – review by Greg Chapman

Title: The Broken Ones
Author: Stephen M Irwin
Publisher: Hachette Australia
ISBN: 9780733627132
REVIEWER: Greg Chapman

Author: Stephen M Irwin has trouble making decisions. He has worked as a roadie for rock’n’roll shows, a call centre operator, agricultural science magazine editor, actor, handyman, and illustrator. The list of things he is afraid of includes heights, dark water, running late, thumbtacks and spiders. Fortunately, he has found an outlet for these and other terrors in his writing. The Broken Ones is his second novel.


Three years ago, on what’s become known as Grey Wednesday, the world became haunted. Everyone suddenly acquired a personal ghost – a friend, a lost sibling, an ex-spouse, an enemy – which is unshakable as a shadow. These peering, silent phantoms have driven millions to despair, and the global economy is in freefall.

Stephen M Irwin’s follow up to his first novel The Dead Path (2010) is an engrossing blend of the supernatural and police procedural with a dash of the apocalypse – a combination that doesn’t disappoint.

In the novel, the world has virtually been turned upside down in the wake of “Grey Wednesday” – a disaster of gargantuan proportions that saw the Earth’s poles shift, creating all manner of destruction, with earthquakes and planes plummeting out of the sky. Worse still, everyone in the entire world (including Brisbane, where the story is set), suddenly found themselves haunted by the ghosts of their past, with long-dead relatives, friends, lovers and enemies following them around.

Everyone has to learn to live with their ghosts, but with society an absolute wreck, some can’t handle the stress and crimes like murder flourish. With the existence of the supernatural now living proof, many of these murderers are quite happy to use the term “the ghosts made me do it” as readily as they draw breath.

Which brings us to Detective Oscar Mariani; the lead officer of a unit tasked with investigating crimes believed to have been perpetrated by ghosts. It’s his job to separate the real murderers from the ghosts and, given that the majority of his suspects are very much alive, his job doesn’t carry much success, prestige or respect.

But when Oscar is called to a gruesome scene of a young girl with occult symbols carved into her flesh, the possibility of supernatural involvement is all too real. Oscar of course becomes obsessed with the case, all the while trying to reconcile the mistakes of his own past and handle the politics within a seemingly corrupt police force.

Oscar’s “mistake” is a core thread of Irwin’s marvellously intricate plot. The detective’s own ghost is a young boy who appeared before Oscar as he was driving, forcing the detective to crash his car with tragic consequences.

In Oscar, Irwin gives us the classic flawed hero; a tortured soul seeking redemption, but the author brings him to life with such clarity, that the mystery almost becomes secondary. The supernatural element of the novel evolves as the story progresses, moving the focus off the ghosts and more towards Persian mythology and there’s also terrifying monsters of the feathered variety lurking in the shadows, but it’s all just lying under the surface.

There are of course sub plots a plenty, including Oscar’s tenuous relationship with his former cop father, his tenuous relationships with other police officers who were once his friends and, his tenuous relationships with the lives of the families Oscar destroyed with his “mistake” on Grey Wednesday, but as in all good tales, everything weaves together in perfect symmetry to a horrific and tragic climax.

With simple language that is still somehow powerfully evocative, Irwin paints the perfect picture of a Brisbane gone terribly wrong and a man who seeks justice for a murdered girl and his own atonement. It’s a grand supernatural murder mystery that would even, dare I say it, some of today’s best thriller writers a run for their money and is well deserving of its recent Honourable Mention in the finalist list for the 2011 Aurealis Awards.

It would be good to see Irwin return to this world in the future and perhaps give us more ghosts of the past. The post-apocalyptic premise he has created is a unique one and deserves more exploration in his distinctive style, but whatever he writes next I’ll certainly be lining up for a copy.

Review by Greg Chapman

The Darkest Shade Of Grey by Alan Baxter – review, by Robert Hood

DISCLAIMER: Thirteen O’Clock is managed by Alan Baxter, Felicity Dowker and Andrew McKiernan as Contributing Editors. While the Contributing Editors’ roles at Thirteen O’Clock are editorial and critique, all three are primarily writers. It is inevitable that their own work will form part of the Australian and international dark fiction publications which are Thirteen O’Clock’s focus, and as such it is also inevitable that their work will be reviewed at Thirteen O’Clock (to prohibit this would not only be unfortunate for Baxter, Dowker, and McKiernan themselves, but for their hardworking editors and publishers).

Thirteen O’Clock will always have a third party contributor review the Contributing Editors’ work. Such reviews will be unedited (aside from standard corrections to typos and grammar), posted in full (be they negative or positive), and will always be accompanied by full disclosure of Baxter, Dowker, and McKiernan’s place at Thirteen O’Clock. At no point will Baxter, Dowker or McKiernan review their own work.

DSOG-coverThe Darkest Shade of Grey
A novella by Alan Baxter

Reviewed by Robert Hood

“Noir” is a term that is somewhat loosely used these days, especially as cross-genre experimentation continues to attack whatever subgenres hold still long enough to get suitably mugged. Naturally, authors cherry-pick individual aspects of the noir form’s “original” manifestation (essentially 1940s and 50s “film noir”) to apply to their own work, thereby blurring the edges of the definition somewhat — the most common ingredients being a tone of dark, urban cynicism and tough-talking PIs (or some other investigative types) vaguely reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. But however loose the definition might become, there’s no denying the appeal of the shadowy crime-based format. Whether it melds with zombies, ghosts, robots, future dystopias (as in Blade Runner), Batman sweeping through the dark streets of Gotham City or re-worked fairytales, combining fantastical elements with the noir tropes and their air of claustrophobic darkness has proven extremely popular.

Alan Baxter’s novella The Darkest Shade of Grey, serialised on the Red Penny Papers website and now available as an ebook, boasts many of the key elements of noir fiction, adroitly combining them with other tropes – in particular the currently popular stereotype of a troubled protagonist with a psychic “ability”. David Johanssen is a journalist whose life has been rent asunder by his own flirtation with the supernatural, in the form of a Ouija board and an entity by the name of Lamashtu. Lamashtu’s femme fatale presence has tempted him into a mire of obsession, prescient vision and failed relationships, just as the noir hero becomes a victim of his own moral failures and is led astray by a sexy female client or victim. Now, living a despairing existence in a Sydney cityscape filled with demons (mostly of his own making), Johannsen struggles to find a way out, only to slide deeper and deeper into the quagmire. In true noir fashion, only bourbon offers him momentary escape from his self-loathing.

The novella begins with the bloody murder of a young woman in a Kings Cross backstreet – a murder which Johanssen’s intuition tells him is the tip of a Big Story that will put him on a better footing with his increasingly impatient editor – and leads him via a potentially insane hobo and much death to a reality he never expected to find and may not survive. The story has a strong tidal flow that drags the reader through to its imaginative climax. The investigative groundwork of the plot runs smoothly and without overt contrivance, and the revelations of the end don’t disappoint. Like the classics of film noir, which were filmed in black-and-white, Baxter’s noir plot teaches his protagonist that what seems to be black can in fact be merely the darkest shade of grey.

As good pulp fiction should be, Baxter’s story is fast-paced, yet the author maintains a noir atmosphere effectively, not simply via plot maneuvers and archetypal characters, but through snatches of effective description and a dark sensibility that is integrated into the details. He’s not afraid to stop and smell the waste run-off occasionally. If Baxter’s use of language can veer toward bare cliché at times, it is a form of genre-based cliché that mostly feels authentic and you go with it easily. Indeed Baxter gives enough individual distinctiveness to his secondary characters to make us accept them, and though Johannsen himself is a stereotype (the classic noir loner, lost to a dark, and ever-darkening reality), Baxter develops the elements that make up that stereotype into a character who is at least as believable and pitiable as your standard noir hero. Then there’s the City – an important character in noir stories. As a Sydneysider it is fascinating to watch Baxter transform Sydney into a noir hell. Indeed it would have been a bonus to see him develop this element further, if he’d had the space to do so.

In the end, The Darkest Shade of Grey may not be the ultimate example of supernatural noir, but it is certainly a good example, an enjoyable and engaging pulp-inspired read that fulfills the promise of its evocative cover and its effective title, with some ideas that linger in the mind long after the lights go out.


Robert Hood is a writer of speculative fiction in all its forms, though he veers to the dark side more often than not. He loves noir fiction and mixing-and-matching the genres. Check out some of his collected stories in Creeping in Reptile Flesh (Morrigan Books, 2011). A dark fantasy novel, Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead, is due out in 2012 from Borgo Press (US). His website can be found at and he occasionally posts reviews there and on his blog, Undead Backbrain.