Given Val McDermid’s reputation as a ‘bloodthirsty lesbian’, TRICK OF THE DARK is a surprisingly genteel novel. That’s partly because the setting is for the most part the dreaming spires of Oxford, but also because the violent deaths / murders that form the narrative spine of the story have all happened before the novel begins.
Even when those murders / deaths are explored in flashback or second-hand accounts, however, they are noticeably less gory and lurid than those generally to be found in McDermid’s canon. In fact, some of the deaths could easily be explained away as accidental.
This is a neat little conceit from McDermid. Her protagonist, Charlie Flint, is suffering a mid-life crisis and her confidence in her ability is at an all-time low. Is Charlie hoping too hard that the deaths she uncovers are all murders, in order to get her life and career back on line? Or is she in fact dealing with an exceptionally clever psychopath who is superbly skilled at covering his or her traces?
Another clever conceit McDermid employs is to have the main suspect for the murders / deaths, Jay Stewart, write a memoir in the first-person. Jay has her own reasons for concealing her motives for various events in her life, as she can’t afford to reveal her true colours to her new lover, Magda, who is the daughter of Corinna, her ex-tutor at St. Scholastika’s, and who Jay has very good reason to hate given that Corinna cut Jay out of her life while Jay was still a student. At least, that’s the reason Jay offers for not being entirely truthful in her memoir. But has she something more sinister to hide?
One interesting aspect to the story is virtually all of the main characters are lesbians. And while it may not be politically correct for an out-and-proud lesbian such as Val McDermid to badmouth the sisterhood, she’s perfectly happy to portray her characters here inhabiting both ends of the moral spectrum. Indeed, some of them are positively boring by the standards of a crime novel.
A further dimension to this is the fact that the story is as concerned with domestic relationships as it is with crime and the investigation of murder. Charlie, for example, has been married to her partner Maria for seven years as the novel opens, and yet one element of her mid-life crisis involves her romantically pursuing Lisa, a motivational speaker who appears to be toying with Charlie’s emotions. Meanwhile, the supposed psychopathic killer Jay is enjoying the first flush of a torrid romance with Magda, and despite the reader’s reservations about Jay, it’s very difficult not to empathise with her personal good fortune.
The framework of the novel is that of an old-fashioned ‘whodunnit’, with Charlie Flint as the traditional gifted amateur sleuth in the mould of Miss Marple. This may come as a surprise to fans of McDermid, or fans of the Wire in the Blood TV series which is based on her novels, but there TRICK OF THE DARK has an undeniably quaint feel to it. That’s not to say that McDermid has lost her edge, or relevance - the story is peppered with biting social commentary, and McDermid is as strong as always on the frustrations of contemporary policing and investigation. Rather, McDermid appears to have deliberately scaled back her fearsome reputation and written a novel that could quite easily appeal to fans of Inspector Morse.
McDermid is a wonderfully vivid prose stylist. Most of her main characters are fully formed and well fleshed out, and the backdrop - whether Oxford or the islands off the coast of Scotland - colourfully rendered. That said, neither the complex nature of the relationships explored here, nor the descriptive passages, are allowed to slow the narrative pace. TRICK OF THE DARK is a compulsive page-turner.
There are some awkward moments, however. A Catholic hatred of homosexuality - necessary to advance the plot - is overplayed, especially as the characters responsible for this attitude reside in an ostensibly liberal academic milieu. An extended sequence in which Charlie encounters another character on a Scottish island feels forced, and is patently shoe-horned in to advance the narrative. And there’s difficulty too, for the seasoned crime fan, in accepting the guilt of the character whom the reader is expected to believe is a psychopathic killer, not because she is poorly drawn, but simply because that solution - in the context of a ‘whodunit’ crime novel - is made far too obvious from an early part of the story, and no other alternatives are proposed until the denouement.
All told, and those caveats aside, TRICK OF THE DARK bears scrutiny with McDermid’s very strong canon of work. If the novel is rather less hardboiled than McDermid’s fans have come to expect, then the author’s skill as a storyteller more than compensates. For the moment, the novel is a standalone, but McDermid leaves plenty of room and material to ensure that the character of Charlie Flint could very easily return. It’s to be hoped that she does. - Declan Burke
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.