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~Trick of the Dark - hopefully not a Hat Trick~
Trick of the Dark, by Val McDermid was published in 2010 and is one of her stand alone novels rather than part of a series featuring one of her regular characters. I hope this won't turn out to be the first of a longer series as it's the poorest McDermid I've read and I've read many.
Charlie Flint is a discredited expert witness, a psychological profiler who testified that an accused man was very unlikely to have committed the crime, only to have him released and then subsequently kill four women. There's not much point being right (that he didn't do the original crime) when the media want to eat her alive for the crimes subsequently committed by the released man. Never mind that you can't lock someone up for what they might do rather than what they've not done. Charlie is in limbo, awaiting a professional hearing at which she's expecting to get struck off so when an interesting case drops through her letter box, offering with it a chance to help a woman she once admired, Charlie's not exactly overwhelmed with better offers.
She receives an envelope full of cuttings about a murder case. A man has been murdered at his own wedding which took place at Charlie's old Oxford college - Saint Scholastika's. The man's two business partners have been found guilty of killing him to prevent him blowing the whistle on their insider dealing activities. The man's mother-in-law was Charlie's tutor in her Oxford student days, his wife had been one of the children for whom she baby sat. Things may not be as straight forward as the successful prosecution of the partners would suggest, especially once it's revealed that the grieving widow is already being very physically comforted by Jay, her new lesbian lover, another woman Charlie knew back in their shared student days.
Charlie's mind is not entirely on the case. Despite being in a long, happy relationship, she's got the hots for Lisa, a woman who offers training and consultancy in something called 'negotiating vulnerability'. Since Lisa just happens to be based in Oxford, there's a super convenient opportunity for Charlie to follow her urges, to find out more about Lisa and to combine business with pleasure.
Jay Stewart is a super successful business woman who left her harsh north eastern childhood, did a degree at Oxford and has since made a success of every internet business she's turned her hand to. The only issue is that her success has a funny way of being won at the loss of others. A business partner died in a climbing accident, a computer programmer who'd created the systems for one of her companies was killed in a robbery, his computer files oddly stolen, and of course there's the sudden death of her new girlfriend's husband. Even back in her student days, her only rival for the position of JCR president was found drowned on the morning of the election. Jay's success is always accompanied by someone else's death.
~A bit too bleedin' obvious for my liking~
It's all very clear what we're supposed to think has happened. The signs are on display, loud and clear for all to see, so clear that it's not hard to work out that there must be more to this than meets the reader's eye. The problem is that even the twist is so well sign-posted that I knew 'whodunnit' long before I was supposed to, worked out why they'd done it and got bored long before the final 'reveal'.
I love Val McDermid's books; I've been reading them for twenty years and I rate her highly. As the creator of the psychological profiling 'giant' Tony Hill, star of such books as 'The Mermaids Singing' and 'The Wire in the Blood', as well as lots of stand alone one-offs, she has written fabulously complex psychological thrillers. And then - sadly - she's knocked out a second rate profiler in the shape of Charlie Flint.
McDermid's earliest books were about a lesbian journalist called Lindsay Gordon. I've not read any of that series. I joined her many fans with the Kate Brannigan series, books set in the Manchester area with a private eye called Kate Brannigan who tended to muddle through and be as interested in music and clothes as she was in finding criminals. Brannigan was fun and I was living in Manchester at the area so I loved the books. What I can't understand is how she seems - with Trick of the Dark - to have regressed 20 years and forgotten all the clever stuff she's written ever since.
Jay Stewart's story is inter-cut with the plot of Trick of the Dark. We are told she's writing an autobiography, that it's going to be a best seller and led to believe that we're only getting told what Jay wants us to know. This inter-cutting is a cheesy and unsophisticated device that annoyed me deeply. I was also left confused at the coincidence of the Oxford killing and Charlie's interest in Lisa which seemed altogether too convenient. I had imagined a lot more twists than the book delivered. In my mind I had lots of complex explanations for the breakdown of Jay's friendship with her tutor, I had alternative killers and motives all lined up which might have made things more interesting. Really you shouldn't need to make up your own twists if the author is doing their job properly.
~Could I care less?~
The biggest problem I had with this books was that it was really hard to find anyone to actually like in more than 500 pages of this book. That combined with the silly weak plot really annoyed me. I have kept all my Val McDermid novels but this one is going to my sister next time she comes to visit since she likes the Lindsay Gordon series.
The victim turns out to be unpleasant, the convicted killers are nasty but probably innocent. Charlie is weak-willed and utterly unbelievable as a profiler. She's supposed to be so smart but she can't understand even the simplest characters in the story, let alone give us a convincing impression of a top-rate psychological profiling professional. She might as well have been a nail technician for all the impact her job seemed to have had on the plot. Her desire to cheat on her long term partner (possibly the only nice person in the whole book) meant I wanted to see her get her butt kicked. Jay is horrible, Magda (the merry widow) was happy to marry a man she didn't really love despite knowing she preferred women, and her mother Corinna is so full of Catholic bigotry that she can't see past her own anger at the many lesbians that seem to fill her life.
I'm not going to give up on McDermid. Every writer can be forgiven one bad book but I will be more wary next time. If the next of her novels that I read is as weak as this one, I probably won't keep reading her after that.
Until recently, I had never read any of Val McDermid' s novels, but when I was given a couple I found that they offered an interesting twist on the rather done-to-death (pun definitely intended) murder thriller. McDermid' s books seemed to offer something a little different from the endless parade of standard police procedurals, without falling into the "Miss Marple" amateur detective genre. With a couple of books now behind me, I was hoping for something similar when I picked up Trick of the Dark.
The plot sees disgraced psychology expert Charlie Flint pulled back to Oxford by her former university tutor, who asks her to investigate the murder of her daughter's husband on their wedding day. Needless to say, the more Charlie digs, the more hidden secrets she uncovers and the more unhappiness and misery is caused.
The plot is both a strength and a weakness. It is relatively straightforward (despite the odd red herring) and so is nice and easy to follow. This, in turn, makes the book very readable. Despite the fact that is fairly lengthy (over 500 pages), it kept me entertained most of the time. On the downside, this simplicity worked against it because it was very easy to work out where the book was heading and who the guilty party would was. Anyone who regularly reads murder thrillers will have it worked out long before the main character finally pieces things together. This makes you feel a sense of exasperation that Charlie is so slow at working things out. I'm not always the fastest in the world at this sort of thing either, so there will be plenty of other people able to work it out much earlier than me!
On the plus side, McDermid books are always enjoyable because (however simple), she does know how to tell a story. She marshalls her facts well, slowly peeling back layers to reveal more and more of the story. As a result, even when you have worked out what is going on, you want to keep on reading to see if you are right and to see how all the various elements of the plot link together.
That said, the plot does feel rather artificial at times. From the slightly mysterious opening (the main character is sent a packet of press clippings as a "test") to the way the murder unfolds, it all feels rather contrived and unlikely. If you accept that this book bears about as much resemblance to reality as pink elephants, then you'll probably get on with it reasonably OK. If you like your murder mysteries to be realistic, then you might struggle.
The element I found most annoying is that pretty much every major character in the book is gay. Sure, there may be the a few straight characters, but all the ones that matter are lesbians, which is patently ridiculous. McDermid presumably does this to promote the gay agenda and highlight the prejudices some people face over their sexuality. Unfortunately, all she really does is reinforce some of those prejudices and stereotypes. The murderer turns out to be a lesbian (that's not a plot spoiler, given how many there are in the plot) pandering to the prejudice that all gay people are dangerously perverted. Charlie is actively considering betraying her long-term partner to have an affair with another character (pandering to widespread misconception that gay people are incapable of fidelity). If McDermid is trying to push the gay agenda, she rather shoots herself in the foot.
I also found it rather difficult to warm to many of the characters (good and bad). They all felt very superficial and selfish. Several also felt rather badly fleshed out (even the major ones), only cropping up as and when the plot demanded. Indeed, apart from Charlie, I didn't really feel like I knew any of the characters any better at the end of the book than I had at the start, and this compounds the feeling of a rather superficial book. I was left with the impression that either McDermid is starting to run out of ideas, or this was just a little book she knocked out to kill some time before she started on something more important. It's readable, but inconsequential
Ultimately, this is pretty much a one-read wonder and unless you are a McDermid completist, I would strongly recommend you try and get hold of it second hand. I got my copy for a couple of quid and I can't complain at that. I read it, I enjoyed it, I gave it away. Had I paid the cover price of £7.99 (or even the online price of around £4.50), I'm not so sure I would have felt as satisfied.
A trick of the Dark
Sphere, later edition, 2011
© Copyright SWSt 2013
Although I enjoy Val McDermid's work, I tend to approach it with caution, as some of her books can be, in parts, distinctly gruesome, and although I like a good (fictional, I hasten to add) murder as well as the next person, I am not someone who relishes an excess of grue.
I'm happy to report that Trick of the Dark, published in 2010, registers low on the gruesomeness scale with all murders taking place "off-stage", although some readers have objected to other aspects, which I'll come to later.
McDermid (who is Scottish but now lives in Manchester) is the author of over 20 crime novels, and is probably best known for those featuring police profiler Dr Tony Hill - dramatised in the TV series Wire in the Blood - and various fairly unpleasant serial killers. However her scope has extended beyond this in various books, for instance 2006's intriguing The Grave Tattoo, which involved a present-day Wordsworth scholar investigating new evidence about the 18th-century fate of the Mutiny on the Bounty's Fletcher Christian.
Trick of the Dark is more familiar McDermid territory, in that the main character, Dr Charlotte (Charlie) Flint, is a psychiatrist, police profiler and Home Office expert witness, currently suspended from practice following a case she was involved in which later had tragic consequences.
Charlie is also, like some of the other characters, a lesbian, which some readers have taken issue with; I'm not sure why. After all, McDermid is herself a lesbian, and it seems reasonable to assume that she might sometimes wish to write about her own community. I don't know why this should be a problem, but it appears from reading Amazon reviews that some (presumably non-gay) readers have found themselves out of their comfort zone, feeling that they had in some way been lured into reading the book under false pretences... I'm not sure what they want, a warning sticker on the cover, perhaps? Anyway, if anyone is daft enough to avoid the book for this reason it's their loss, because Trick of the Dark is a good read.
Things are not going well for Charlie: her professional life is in disarray and her personal life is also presenting challenges - although in a happy long-term relationship, she has found herself powerfully attracted to someone else. While in this state of turmoil, she is surprised when a package arrives in the post containing news clippings about the recent murder of a man on his wedding day, at the Oxford college which Charlie previously attended. Further investigation leads Charlie to her former tutor Dr Corinna Newsam, distraught about her daughter Magda - the widow of the murdered man - whose new lover is, Dr Newsam has reason to believe, a murderer. Can Charlie help her to find evidence against successful, ruthless Jay Macallan Stewart?
I found this to be a very gripping read, even if some aspects of the plot did not entirely ring true - but I can't go into details about this without adding spoilers! I did find Charlie's attraction to the game-playing Lisa, who struck me as thoroughly unpleasant pretty much from the outset, to be rather unaccountable - but then attraction doesn't always make sense, so I'll let that one pass, but there were a couple of bits which didn't hang together. All in all, however, it was well plotted and compulsively readable.
The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of Charlie and also that of the suspected murderer, Jay, including extracts from the memoir Jay is writing. This makes for some intriguing guesswork as the reader tries to read between the lines of what is and isn't being told. The fast-paced plot takes Manchester-based Charlie to Oxford, London, the Isle of Skye and the North-East of England as she tries to piece together the past.
Recommended to anyone who enjoys crime fiction; it won't change your life, but it's a good escapist read.
Available in Sphere paperback, publisher's price £7.99 (544 pages).