Review: Dark Dawn by Matt McGuire (DS O’Neill #1)

Belfast. January 2005. Acting Detective Sergeant John O’Neill stands over the body of a dead teenager. The corpse was discovered on the building site of a luxury development overlooking the River Lagan.

Kneecapped then killed, the body bears the hallmarks of a punishment beating. But this is the new Northern Ireland – the Celtic Tiger purrs, the Troubles are over, the paramilitaries are gone. So who is the boy? Why was he killed? O’Neill quickly realises that no one cares who the kid is – his colleagues, the politicians, the press – making this case one of the toughest yet. And he needs to crack this one, his first job as Principle Investigator, or he risks ending up back in uniform.

Disliked by the Chief Inspector and with his current rank yet to be ratified, O’Neill is in a precarious position. With acute insight, Matt McGuire’s cracking debut exposes the hidden underbelly of the new Northern Ireland, a world of drug dealing, financial corruption and vigilante justice.

In the interest of honesty, I actually know this author. Matt McGuire is my thesis supervisor and a senior lecturer at my university. It’s probably in my best interest to give a good review, as I should probably stay on his good side, which is why I had decided that if I hated this book, I wouldn’t review it at all. Incidentally, I did not hate it, and feel I can review this book honestly and without bias… good thing I had a test run on Stephanie Meyer.

I wasn’t asked to review this, there’s no conflict of interest in that way at all. I borrowed this from a friend who bought it because it’s by Matt, so I don’t even actually own a copy myself. I’ve reviewed this as I would review any other book, I promise!


Now that’s out of the way… Holy shit guys, this book.

Coming off the back of reading The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith, I have to say that I preferred Dark Dawn. It was brutal and gritty, with plenty of layers. They aren’t similar in any way, other than that they’re both crime novels, but I preferred Matt’s style.

At first, I really wasn’t sure that I was going to like this book. Straight away, I noticed that the writing style is mainly short, choppy sentences, which I really didn’t like until I got used to them about a third of the way through. I also felt like the main crime really took a back seat, with nothing really happening until the last minute. Those are my only small criticisms for this novel, and they’re really not bad enough for me to lower my rating.

Set in Belfast, McGuire has captured the gritty side of the city and it’s people. I really love Belfast for exactly this grittiness, even though we’re 9 years on from when this novel is set. I know my way around Belfast well enough to be able to picture the scenes in this novel, which made the familiarity factor come into play for me. This helped to make me feel really unnerved by some of the events that take place in the novel, while simultaneously feeling comfortable within the setting. It was nice to take a wee walk around Belfast in my head, even if I was following a criminal around.

What really got me to love this book is the characterisation. You come to feel for each of the characters, even those who are the “baddies”. You grow to care for O’Neill, as he tries to solve a murder with the bosses breathing down his neck and save his marriage. You feel for Lynch, the career criminal who really can’t work out how to have a normal life. You feel for the young kids, Marty and Petesy, as they begin to take risks in the criminal underworld of Belfast. You really want to see all of them sort their shit out and have some kind of happy ending, whatever that may be.

In this novel, you come to understand that each of the characters has so many layers that there’s no real good guys and bad guys. There’s not a huge amount of redemption, but there are glimmers of hope. Even O’Neill and Ward, the policemen, have layers of good and bad. Lynch was probably the most interesting character for me, as he definitely has varying shades of grey.



I really enjoyed the scattered literary references throughout the book. I’d expect nothing less from Matt, and I got a kick out of it every time I came across one.

I ended up staying up till 3am to finish this book. I don’t give up my sleep easily, believe me, but I just had to find out what happened at the end. I was well rewarded for this, with the ending being brutal, yet satisfying. I wouldn’t change it, though I do hope we find out what happens to Petesy. I’m clinging to that glimmer of hope for him and Marty. Definitely worth staying awake for!

So while I thought I might have trouble staying unbiased (because Matt is a pretty awesome professor to have), I really didn’t. I didn’t really need to, because if I didn’t know who wrote it, I would still have thought this book was awesome. I’ve actually had more trouble reconciling the nice Irish lecturer dealing with my panicky emails and talking about Pygmalion with the one writing about kneecapping fourteen year olds!

I’m definitely going to be getting my hands on the second book in this series, When Sorrows Come, as soon as humanly possible. If you like crime novels, definitely pick this one up. If you’re interested in Northern Ireland after The Troubles, give this one a go. If you’re after a really good read… you need this book.

5/5 Stars and a Leonardo DiCaprio. Yep, I’m going there.

See? I do give 5 star reviews! I’m not heartless!

I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Belsadriel. 


4 thoughts on “Review: Dark Dawn by Matt McGuire (DS O’Neill #1)

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