Book Review: “At First Light” by Barbara Nickless

On the face of it, as someone who is interested in symbols and semiotics, this should have been the perfect crime book for me to read. There was certainly much that I enjoyed. But I also found elements of the book a bit of a battle.

The two main battles I had actually surrounded the semiotics side of things.

First, particularly early on, the book seemed to want to stress that the protagonist was a specialist in semiotics at every opportunity. While I appreciate that the message needed to be got through to the reader, most of whom probably have little understanding of what a semiotician may do, it just ended up feeling forced, overly clever, and repetitive, rather than focussing on what it was that the character, Evan, actually did.

Second, one of the key aspects of the semiotics and how they were presented in the book revolved around poems. As I have written before in relation to five poems that I do like (Kubla Khan, Because of You, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, The Lake, and A Shropshire Lad), I don’t particularly like poetry. So, when the poetry is written in a non-standard English format and can go on for several pages (at least in the font size that I use on my phone), I find it tedious. I am sure that the author put a lot of work into the poetry and for some it would provide a source of interest as they try to work out who the killer is before the protagonist, but, I’m afraid, it did absolutely nothing for me, and I skipped over almost all of it.

Having said about the battles, I should then say that overall I really enjoyed the book, the characters, and the story.

There were a number of lines that I particularly enjoyed in the book.

Someone—perhaps Nietzsche—once said that those seen dancing were thought insane by those who could not hear the music.

This line resonated with me thanks to the inclusion of Nietzsche in one of the remixes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood‘s “Welcome to the Pleasuredome”, in relation to which I am writing a book, Frankie Fans Say.

Next, is the following line, which anyone living in the UK – particularly as I read the sentence in November – could probably relate to…

A bitter mid-November night slouched off to make room for a grim day that no one considered an improvement.

In relation to signs and symbols, the book has a couple of interesting points to make. For example,

We must be aware that every sign or symbol left at a crime scene can carry a number of meanings.


It’s dangerous to draw conclusions too quickly and without considering all the signs present

That symbols can carry more than one meaning and that drawing a quick conclusion can be problematic, are central to points that I make in my book “Japan: The Basics” and will be discussing in much more depth in my work on “visual packaging culture“. The problems relate to a point that the protagonist makes very well…

“Every human is a semiotician,” Evan went on. “That is, a reader of signs. All of us, every single day, interpret—or decode—the signs around us. Traffic lights. Road signs. The silhouette of a man or woman outside our bathroom doors. We’re constantly interpreting the man-made world around us.”

Overall, I really enjoyed the book, just as I had previously enjoyed “Blood on the Tracks” by the same author about five years ago.

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