A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

"He took a knife out of his drawer and cut the roll in half, tomato sauce squirting over his fingers. He handed over her share and then licked his fingers. What more, Karen wondered, could a woman ask for in a man?"

a Meg Gardiner moment:

"The woman who entered in a flurry of tweed and cashmere resembled a school mistress of indeterminate age but one accustomed to exerting discipline over her pupils. For one crazy moment, Bel nearly jumped to her feet in a Pavlovian response to her own teenage memories of terrorist nuns."

Val McDermid is back with a stand-alone novel, A Darker Domain– though some of the minor characters have appeared in other books, most notably the forensic archaeologist River Wilde who was first encountered in The Grave Tattoo. The Darker Domain is an exiting, well-constructed novel that is a perfect showcase for the author's considerable talents. Like The Grave Tattoo, A Darker Domain is one of the author's "mainstream" books, in other words there are no gory details, unlike some of her other output.

DI Karen Pirie is in charge of the Fife police cold-case unit. She's a woman of a certain age and weight, and an attractive protagonist – confident, professional, but with a sufficient touch of introspection and self-awareness to make her interesting. She's presented with two apparently unconnected cases: first, that of a miner who disappeared one night during the terrible strike in the 1980s which ruined an industry, the local community, and whose effects are still felt today. The man's daughter wants Karen to find him because her son is dying of a rare blood disease, and she's urgently seeking donors. Karen's second case is that of the missing grandson of the local laird and stinkingly rich magnate Broderick Grant. About 20 years ago, Grant's daughter and baby son were kidnapped and ransomed: in a botched attempt to rescue them, the daughter was killed and the kidnappers disappeared with the ransom and the baby (presumably). Now, a journalist has uncovered new evidence during a holiday in Italy, and convinces Grant to let her work on the case. Because the police were involved in the kidnapping disaster, and because the man in charge, Lawson, was subsequently imprisoned for murder (a previous case of Karen's, though I don't think that this has been recorded in a book), and because he's bloody-minded and arrogant, Grant is keen to keep the police out of it this time round.

The first two-thirds of the book are gripping. Val McDermid is a superb storyteller and her account of the miner's strike is harrowing, moving and authentic. The novel is unfalteringly sure-footed with the many switches between the cases, time, and people's perspectives. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt that in the last part of the book the tension was not maintained quite to the pitch of the earlier parts, perhaps partly because I had guessed what was going on in both stories, and the ending is a little rushed. However, there are a few surprises still in store, and although the two main themes are pretty downbeat to the bitter end, there are optimistic outcomes to a couple of subplots. One of the things I appreciated most about the book is the character of Karen Pirie - I like her, her attitudes, the way she deals with colleagues above and below her in the hierarchy – and I hope to read more about her in future.

Read other reviews of A Darker Domain at:

The Guardian (review by Laura Wilson).

Euro Crime (review by Mike Ripley).

Living Scotsman.

The Times (review by Marcel Berlins). 

Amazon (UK) customer reviews.


4 thoughts on “A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

  1. I’m afraid the one Val McDermid novel I read was so ludicrous I’ve never wanted to try another. The detective double-act was quite unlovely, and the transsexual torturer… Well, excuse me!

  2. I liked her ´gory´ series whereas I didn´t quite know what to think about The Grave Tattoo. This is how I began my review on my Opera blog in January: “This story is not a hardboiled, psychological Tony Hill & Carol Jordan thriller but a rather delightful cock-and-bull tale.”
    I did enjoy it, but found it a bit difficult to take it seriously. On the whole, I think she writes well, though, and I concluded that at least her plot was more convincing than Dan Brown´s Da Vinci Code.

  3. Hmm, I think I recall that transexual torturer, Prof Ccx – not my taste either! I know what you mean, too, Dorte, about her more mainstream stuff – but it is certainly readable, the pages just slip by and before you know it, you’ve finished!

  4. Pingback: Review: A DARKER DOMAIN by Val McDermid | Reactions to Reading

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