Darkness Runs Deep

by Claire McNeel 

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia 2024

Publisher’s blurb

In the darkest hour, a blook-soaked teenager flees the rural Gerandaroo oval.

Eight months later, Bess, a young teacher, returns home to Gerandaroo. A childhood game of dare with her former best friend forces Bess to form a women’s footy team to play against Denby, a rival town. Bess reluctantly recruits players, but the team must contend with hostile locals – including Bess’s own father. Will this help the small community to come back together – or will it be the final thing that blows everything apart?

As tensions in the town boil over, so too do resentments and secrets and violence that have been previously held tight and close.


by Ann Penhallurick, writing as A D Penhall

New Year’s Eve 1992. We’re in Gerandaroo, with a teenage boy, ‘tears stained with blood’. Cut immediately to August 1993 and Bess, a recently minted teacher, is on her way back into Gerandaroo, which we soon learn is a small Victorian town sandwiched between two larger ones. What’s left of the lifeblood of Gerandaroo is being squeezed out by the events scantily described in the prologue. But what happened? Who to? Is someone lost, disappeared, dead? This is the key mystery for the reader of Darkness Runs Deep – something dreadful has uncovered and produced schisms within the town. Whatever happened is close to Bess’s family, football is involved – we’re looking for a what-happened, not a who-done-it. 

Like Emily Maquire’s An Isolated Incident, the real concern of Darkness Runs Deep is the reverberations of crime on a town and its residents. The story follows Bess’s return and shifting perspective to focus on the old and new strains in Bess’s relationships, an absent brother, erstwhile best friend, the ex-boyfriend and her parents. Above all, the story is about the ramifications of Bess’s taking on a ‘Gerandaroo dare’; to set up a women’s footy team.

McNeel herself comes from a family of VFL/AFL dedicates. Gerandaroo is a footy town – the game, the local team, is the glue that holds the town together. It’s 1993 and there’s never been a women’s team and it raises hackles when Bess tries to form one. Good on Bess, and her mate, Jules.

I came to think I’d like McNeel as I read through the various women’s attempts to learn the game, the bringing together of generations and breaking down of stereotypes. She must have, I feel, a good heart. The detail began to overwhelm me when I had to keep track of way too many minor characters, as likeable as they were, and too many football moves. Maybe this is because I’m not a Victorian, although I have lived in Melbourne and watched the local VFL, and I’ve worked in remote Indigenous communities where I’ve witnessed the real power of more than one code of footy to bring communities together. Maybe it’s because the story was, McNeel’s bio tells us, originally written as a play. The cast of – likeable – characters would certainly be more effective on stage.

Darkness Runs Deep is loosely a crime novel, although there’s no real ah-ha moment, or ‘how did I miss that’ questions for the reader. The real enjoyment in reading this novel is in being taken back to a time – not all that long ago – when women who wanted to play sport, especially contact and competitive sports, were way more constrained than they are now –at least they have more opportunities in most Western countries. McNeel does a great job of showing Bess’s internal to-ing and fro-ing about what she is doing. We also experience the resistances from the women themselves and the families around them and end up very satisfied that we can change the world, one small community at a time!