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As the head of an independent publishing house myself, reading Val McDermid’s latest thriller made me seriously jealous of Bywater Books. It’s so good, I can already see the stellar sales report.
McDermid is not without controversy, however. For years I have heard the same grumbling complaint about her from readers and even other writers: She’s a lesbian writer, but her books aren’t very lesbian in content. Plus, she came right out and said to a U.K.newspaper (she’s Scottish) that she was not going to make a living writing lesbian crime fiction.
Until now, perhaps.
My response to complaints about McDermid has always been that the books are superb. She’s one of the best in all of mystery/crime/thriller writing. And her books always have strong female characters, like Kate Brannigan and Carol Jordan (a personal favorite).
McDermid also doesn’t shy away from the grisly or violent and incorporates the dailiness and near-mundanity of 21st century violence into all her books. Not only is she not caught in the web of the traditional “cozy” like many lesbian mystery writers, but some might say her books are often shocking in their blood-letting intensity. That was certainly the case with Fever of the Bone, last year’s Lammy winner for Best Lesbian Mystery, which opened with some stunningly violent scenes. I personally think of McDermid as the natural heir to P.D. James, who is unarguably the best female mystery writer since Agatha Christie.
All of that said, Trick of the Dark is something old and something new from McDermid. A stand-alone novel (not one of her series detectives appears) and thoroughly, engagingly, compellingly lesbian as well as being just as bloodily intense as her previous thrillers. For those of us who have been reading mysteries since our mother told us not to at a very young age, Trick of the Dark will be reminiscent of old-school (literally in this case, since it’s set at Oxford) mysteries like Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison or Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series.
McDermid’s latest protagonist (though not the actual star of the novel) Charlie Flint, is, like McDermid’s Tony Hill, a psychiatrist. Unlike Hill, however, Dr. Charlotte Flint is not in good standing with her peers, having been suspended from her job, barred from practicing and awaiting possible legal sanctions.
Until this happened, Charlie had a reasonably contented life between work and home. But things unravel fast in life (and in McDermid novels) and now Charlie is on the skids to the point where she’s even tempted to cheat on her wife of seven years, Maria, with Lisa Kent, a woman with whom she is deeply infatuated and who she cannot get off her mind.
Trick of the Dark begins (after a brief but horrifying prologue) with Charlie receiving an envelope filled with xeroxed clippings about a recent murder. The envelope is anonymous–she wonders if it’s an unclear message from Lisa–but as she reads the clippings, she starts to realize why they’ve come.
Charlie used to baby-sit the young widow of the dead man, Dr. Magdalene “Magda” Newsame. Magda is the daughter of Charlie’s former mentor, Corinna, who has sent her the clippings as a kind of oblique summons. That summons leads Charlie back to her Oxfordalma mater where she begins to investigate the murder of Magda’s husband, Phillip. The circumstances of the murder concern Corinna more than she is saying and Charlie discovers why as she begins her investigation.
Meanwhile, there is Jay Macallan Stewart, Magda’s lover.Jay is the other major player in this striking novel. Larger than life, and like Magda’s late husband, wildly wealthy, Jay is a different sort of luminary from the late Phillip. And with Jay, Magda has been leading a double life—carrying on her affair with Jay while publicly mourning her husband, returning to their flat after a night of sex with Jay and trying not to feel the guilt that overwhelms her.
Jay herself is quite the character, as the excerpts of her memoir detail. Working-class, from a truly gruesome childhood, she’s excelled in the Horatio Alger style: She’s a bright light of Oxford. And also a flagrantly out lesbian.
The question Corinna has for Charlie is this: Is Jay also the person who murdered or paid to have murdered, Corinna’s son-in-law and Magda’s husband?
Devotees of McDermid will find much of what they love about her books embedded in Trick of the Dark. But McDermid’s latest is more reminiscent of P.D. James—and even a little Henry James—than her other books. In Trick of the Dark she unveils the layers of various lives. The reader actually sees the excerpts from Jay’s memoirs, but the reader also gains entree into other lives as well—Corinna’s, Magda’s and of course, Charlie’s.
It’s easy to give away too much about this sort of mystery, which combines all the best elements of the closed society crime novel with the subtext of classic literary fiction. McDermid takes us on a wild but smooth ride between past and present, straight and queer, working class and elite. Trick of the Dark is clever, smart, bloody, disturbing and memorable. It is also irrefutably lesbian and delves into many of the issues lesbians face, from embracing or negating their own sexuality to dealing with what happens when women come out, particularly in an atmosphere as rigid as that of Oxford. All of which makes Trick of the Dark superb reading and a clear contender for more awards for McDermid, who not only won the Lammy last year, but also the coveted Crime Writers of America Diamond Dagger. A must read.
Trick of the Dark
by Val McDermid
Paperback, 9781617750236, 400pp