Sunday, March 29, 2009

Psychological and sociological darkness are the basis of much of Val McDermid‘s writing, and A Darker Domain (Harper, $24.99, 368 pages), a well crafted mystery, is no exception.

The author knows how to put together a complicated and gripping plot with a strong cast of characters although her literary style is marked more by terseness than grace. The strength of her latest book lies in her real awareness of the bitterness that developed in Scotland during the national mining strike of 1984. Ms. McDermid is grimly famililar with her topic. She is from a family of Scottish miners and her portrayal of what she aptly calls a “darker domain” has the uncompromising impact of fact rather than fiction. She has an understanding of how much and how long anger will survive in a working class community still riven by the harsh class distinctions that marred that social world and she uses her characters to illustrate how poverty can degrade loyalty. It is a bleak picture that she paints.

Her device of moving her plot rapidly and smoothly between widely varying times and locations succeeds because the characters are vivid enough to carry and make credible a fast- moving sequence of events. The book is dominated, perhaps not accidentally, by strong women. There is Detective Inspector Karen Pirie who heads the Cold Case Review Team in the town of Fife, whose reputation is based on her exposure of a corrupt and high-level police official. There is Annabel Richmond, a freelance journalist who will let nothing stand in the way of a story that will make her wealthy and famous. And there is Judith Maclennan Grant, wife of the formidably tough, rich and powerful Broderick Maclennan Grant, who can match the arrogance of her husband with shrewd use of personal power.

It is the story of the kidnapping and death of Catriona Maclennan Grant, and her father’s continuing search for his grandson. Yet, knitted through its fabric is the pattern of the mining strike and its psychological destruction of local relationships. Ironically, it is a miner’s daughter who launches a crucial police investigation with her insistence that her father, who disappeared 22 years earlier, was still alive. Meantime, the discovery by vacationing journalist Annabel Richmond of a murder in Tuscany provides a major clue to the truth about the life of Broderick Maclennan Grant’s wayward daughter and her son.

There is nothing simple about the plot and the reader has to pay attention to keep up with the pace. Yet Ms. McDermid skillfully ties up an immense number of loose threads in a conclusion in which justice is mixed with poignancy. The book begins and ends with a dying chid.


Hallie Ephron’s Never Tell a Lie (Morrow, $24.99, 288 pages) is a slick little study in malevolence. It offers a wrenching account of Ivy Rose, a woman in the final stages of pregnancy who has gone through the nightmare of previous miscarriages and is haunted by the fear she will never have a healthy child.

As if that weren’t enough anguish, she finds herself in the middle of what seems to be a murder investigation arising from the disappearance of her strange friend Melinda. To heighten the tension and make Ivy even more miserable, she has to deal with a hostile detective and a horrified suspicion that her husband David may be involved.

What makes the book memorable is its sharp characterization of a woman tormented by possibilities that she doesn’t want to consider. The denouement is dramatic and predictable. Most intriguing are the questions it leaves unanswered.


A slew of serial killings in which the victims are bled dry and their noses cut off is the lurid backdrop for J. Sydney Jones’ The Empty Mirror (Minotaur, $24.95, 320 pages), a mystery full of famous names and historical events and starring the city of Vienna.

Mr. Jones’ expertise on the city makes his book almost a travelogue, as he embellishes dramatic scenes with informed commentary on historical developments and local landmarks.

The plot focuses on the arrest of famed artist Gustav Klimt in the summer of 1898 for the alleged murder of one of his models. However, Mr. Klimt is only one of a kaleidoscope of celebrities who people these pages. They include Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, Mark Twain and Richard Freiherr von Krafft Ebing, student of psychological crimes, with criminologist Dokter Hanns Gross called in to help prove Klimt’s innocence.

However, the case goes beyond the warped violence of a serial killer, whose activities become almost one of the more minor events, competing with kidnapping and assassination. Not left out are references to Viennese cuisine.

This would be the ideal book to take on a trip to Vienna.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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