It obviously was not easy for Martin Cruz Smith to move away from his Russian detective novels, especially Gorky Park. It took him years to come up with this terrific read, a fast-paced novel that still leans a little heavily on an iconoclastic hero to sustain our belief in its plot. But who cares if Smith takes us on a literary outing devoid of any great depth? What has you riveted are great characters in a rich, intricately woven book. Set in 19th-century Wigan, in Lancashire, England, it is a none too subtle take on Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness. Jonathan Blair is Conrad's Marlow, a cynical American mining engineer who has been chased out of Africa for stealing from the missionaries' Bible Fund. He is down and nearly out on his luck in London when he is packed off on the road to Wigan to hunt for a young missing curate, John Maypole. He goes reluctantly because his employer, Bishop Hannay, promises to send him back to Africa if he is successful. Blair travels north into Smith's meticulously researched apocalypse which is made up of dark satanic mills, coal dust and skies turned the ashen grey of an eclipse by industry. There he meets Rose Molyneux, a pit girl who not only works at the mine but insists on wearing trousers to do it. Blair gets a little sidetracked falling in love with the mysterious Rose, but his desire to escape the benighted coal country drives him on to uncover the unsavoury truth about Maypole. What it all adds up to is damn good storytelling, never mind that Smith's feelings for period and dialogue miss by a mile. There are bids to kill Blair, booby traps in mines, suicide attempts, clog fights to the death and, thrown in for good measure but no apparent reason, a mad heir. What really dominates this novel, though, is Wigan, an industrial wasteland that still manages to burst at the coal seams with the energy of its people despite poverty, overcrowding, and appalling living conditions. 'It's a black hole,' says Rose. It is also absolutely compelling.