Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid
With Scottish crime maven Val McDermid having produced one of the best thrillers of
2009 (Fever of the Bone, the most recent installment in her popular Jordan-Hill series), and one of the most acclaimed suspense novels of the past two decades in 1999’s A Place of Execution, any new work is rightly met with heightened anticipation.
In Trick of the Dark, she has bypassed her three existing series (others centre on journalist Lindsay Gordon and private investigator Kate Brannigan) in favour of a ninth stand-alone work. The main character here is Charlie Flint, a leading clinical psychiatrist whose career is in limbo after a murder defendant in whose acquittal she was involved later killed four women. Her love life is equally shaky, with her long-term relationship threatened by her attraction to a life coach and therapist.
This gloomy opening synopsis is swiftly followed by Charlie’s receipt of a package of press cuttings about the brutal murder of a groom at his wedding on the grounds of St Scholastika’s College, Oxford, where Charlie once studied. The victim Philip Carling’s former business partners have been tried and convicted of the crime, the accepted motive being that Carling was about to expose them for insider trading.
The cuttings also reveal that the bride concerned was a young woman named Magda Newsam, Charlie’s former babysitting charge. The clippings, it turns out, constitute a summons from Magda’s mother, Dr Corinna Newsam, an Oxford fellow who habitually appointed her brightest students to the task of caring for her four children while she pursued career advancement.
Charlie dutifully responds, and learns that Corinna suspects the involvement in Carling’s death of Jay Macallan Stewart, another former student-babysitter who has overcome a disadvantaged past to find extraordinary success in business, and who apparently embarked on a relationship with the bereaved Magda very shortly after the wedding. A merry widow? This is what McDermid asks us to ponder, along with whether Corinna’s request for investigative assistance is inspired by homophobia (she and Mr Newsam, a deplorable chap, are devout Catholics), or something more sinister than mere bigotry.
The titular ‘trick of the dark’ refers to a scene witnessed by Corinna many years ago that she thinks is linked to the murder of Carling, and as we learn more about Jay’s past, primarily through passages of the memoir she is writing, suspicion is cast in her direction.
However, the relentless nature of Charlie’s delving makes it wise to reserve judgement – and McDermid, who knows precisely where to invest her imaginative energies, makes only a fairly cursory attempt to lead her reader down the garden path.
In itself, Trick of the Dark is satisfying if unremarkable: the plotting has been done with care, but McDermid seems not to have devoted the attention to character exposition that a reader familiar with her work might expect. Her artful exploration of the painful past of psychologist Tony Hill was one of the best elements of Fever of the Bone, and the absence of comparable emotional substance makes Trick of the Dark a relatively lightweight read. Nonetheless, her skill is such that any fan of the genre would be foolish to bypass it.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz