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Amid all of the male crime thriller writers around at the moment, Val McDermid is one of a small band of female authors who easily manage to rank up there with their male peers. She regularly involves her native Scotland, thus leaving comparisons between her and Ian Rankin, but I find that the depth of her tales is often the winner as she doesn't rely so much on any recurring characters.
This particular tale is displayed a little differently to the usual crime thriller. The book's lead character is the slightly overweight Inspector Karen Pirie, leading a cold case team looking into the disppearance of former miner Mick Prentice. Running alongside this is a wealthy businessman whose daughter was killed and grandson kidnapped around the same time Prentice disappeared. This thread has a powerful female journalist with a rep for getting things done as its lead character, and the two pair off against each other quite well on paper.
The thing is, they rarely meet, and this is something I was quite surprised at. I found that the setup of the book being day by day, dated headings as opposed to chapters, a bit like The Time Traveller's Wife, made it harder to establish which stage you were at, and if I left it for longer than a day or so, as I often have to do with books, then I'd forget the more recent events and have to have a little recap to refresh my memory. The characters are largely left to their own devices, without much external cooperation or conflict, and I didn't feel any emotions stir that I normally when reading a gripping crime thriller, so I was a bit disappointed there.
But the thing is, there's something very gripping about the way McDermid puts together a mystery, and this is no exception. I'd say it's quite easy to piece together the pieces and guess who is who and what is what, linking things up and making educated guesses, to be honest. Despite this, though, it's quite thrilling, as events happen and people are revealed to be keeping secrets, characters appear when you least expect them, and the action switches from one location to the other. McDermid's ability to give a vivid picture of the location is impressive, and here she uses the bleak Scottish countryside and makes a stark comparison with that of the roaming relaxing and beautiful Italian equivalent. The story switches between the two locations quite a bit, and to be honest it makes you want to visit Italy more than any other book I have read, although I'm told Donna Leon's Brunetti's books are magical.
The book is hard to put down, and of a very high quality, and it's easy to see why the author is as on top of her game as she is. The way the story and the mystery unfold in front of you reveals startlingly complicated and detailed plots that don't show any holes, and this is impressive. Usually, a crime thriller author will keep things relatively simple in order to avoid missing key holes and leaving things rather unbelievable, and while A Dark Domain is a bit far fetched, I was able to admit that everything was possible, and it's not often there aren't any holes.
I do wish the characters had been a bit meatier in terms of their development, but flicking back and forth between the two of them, it wasn't really possible. One thing McDermid does do a very good job of is explain the situation with the miners' strikes of the 80s, bringing out the stark living conditions and just how hard hit people were by the ensuing levels of poverty and lack of trade and jobs. At times, it's a very bleak picture painted indeed, and she is keen to show the characters still feeling the back of it even well over 20 years later. She does this through grudges and older characters with powerful memories, and the way the flashbacks allow the tale to be told as if it was current does mean that you feel like you're there. It was just a bit confusing with all the back and forth. You really have to take your time and realise where and when you are at the time.
Overall then, this is a very good book. I think McDermid is an excellent author, and I shall continue to read her stand alone novels. She does have a couple of short series of books featuring recurring characters, and I'd like to see how this has affected her depth of tale compared to the depth of character. When I have time, I'm sure I'll pick them up and give them a go. Until then, I'm more than happy with the rest of her work. Recommended, just take a pinch of salt for the plot and keep your concentration up for the time switching and character switching.
Val McDermid is a Scottish author who has written about 30 crime thrillers. This book, A Darker Domain, was published in 2008.
I read the occasional crime thriller and tend to enjoy them, but I haven't read one in ages so when I found this in the library I thought it would be an ideal re-introduction to the genre.
*** The story ***
The book's main character is detective inspector Karen Pirie, who is investigating the disappearance of miner Mick Prentice 25 years ago. At the same time, a journalist uncovers evidence from an old kidnapping case, which had resulted in the death of a wealthy heiress and the disappearance of her young son. The book is set mainly in Scotland, with some scenes in Italy.
One of the main things I enjoyed about this book was the interesting insight it gave into the miners' strike and the hardships - and the hugely difficult decisions - faced by the miners and their families. It also portrays the Scottish and Italian landscapes in vivid and appealing ways.
The narrative is always in the third person and switches between the two main characters, with flashbacks to give us an insight into some of the events that happened in the past, which have influenced the present-day incidents. I managed to follow these changes without much confusion - and the changes are signposted by dates - but they could be complicated if you prefer a more straightforward narrative.
*** The characters ***
I thought the book fell down a bit with its characterisation. The characters were, I thought, a little bit like caricatures - the hard-faced journalist who'll stop at nothing to get her story, the slightly overweight policewoman who is very smart and ahead of the game - but can't resist the occasional pie and diet coke... To me some of the characters were a little too obvious and one-sided, and this did feel a bit like a TV serial at times. I also guessed some of the 'twists' early on - but then part of the fun of these books is guessing where the story is headed so this isn't a complaint as such.
*** Overall ... ***
All in all, this is an interesting and fairly undemanding book. It's easy to read and although the story is a bit complex, it isn't too hard to follow. You have to extend your disbelief a little at times, but I think that's often the case with crime thrillers and they would be a bit boring if everything was completely true to life.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this, and like all good crime thrillers you didn't really want to put it down. It also prompted me to find out more about the miners' strike - which I think is a good recommendation for the way the story is told. I will definitely read more McDermid books in the future.