Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid

Val McDermid is an intelligent, professional author at the top of her game. She certainly knows how to write a commercial book that is controversial, exaggerated (even totally over the top) yet cosy – no blood and gore here. A groom is murdered during his wedding reception. The bride, Magda, has immediately begun a passionate lesbian relationship with a high-flying dot-com businesswoman, Jay. Magda’s mother, Jay’s old Oxford college tutor, is distraught about the relationship and asks another one of her ex-students, Dr Charlie Flint, to find out whether Jay really did commit a crime in her undergraduate days. Charlie, another lesbian who is in an apparently blissfully happy relationship with the wholly decent Maria, a dentist, reluctantly takes on the job. She (Charlie) likes Magda, who she knows via babysitting for Magda’s younger siblings while a student. Charlie is currently suspended from her regular work, so takes on the commission, largely because she has a crush on yet another lesbian, Lisa Flint, who she met as a student on one of Lisa’s motivational workshops. Lisa lives in Oxford, so Charlie thinks she can combine her investigation into Jay with a bit of hanky panky with Lisa.

The pace of this novel is blistering, as Charlie uncovers more and more suspicious information about Jay, later on with the help of the book’s sole decent male character, Nick, a policeman (who is decent only because Charlie has previously redeemed him). In parallel, Jay has agreed to write volume 2 of her autobiography, having earlier made a mint out of volume 1, a “misery memoir” of her ghastly childhood (inspired somewhat by Jeanette Winterson?). Excerpts from Jay’s new book provide the reader with tantalising hints that Jay has been involved in the deaths of at least four people in her past – deaths that have been advantageous to her.

Once started, this is not a book that is easy to put down, so on that level, it is a success. But it is not a book that hangs together in any realistic sense. One problem is a dearth of suspects. If the reader assumes that Jay is so obviously the prime suspect that she can’t be guilty, there is only one other possible perpetrator. Other problems are that Philip, the dead bridegroom, is never described directly so is not in focus, yet his actions while alive are relatively crucial to the plot – this part of the book is unconvincing, especially the appearance and actions of the “spiv” who appears at Magda’s flat one night. Although three of the key characters (Charlie, Magda and Jay) are vivid when on the page, their emotional dilemmas (Charlie’s wavering between blandly good Maria and underdrawn siren Lisa; Magda’s guilt about Philip and passion for Jay) simply don’t engage off it. The main problem, however, is that the solution to the crime(s) means that the killer’s motivation in the bridegroom murder is completely illogical.

In summary, this standalone novel is readable and slick – it’s a page-turner, but at the end one wonders whether there was much of substance in it, or whether the parody is intentional or unintentional (I assume the former). There is an initial dedication to the author’s old Oxford college, but the novel’s portrayal of it (or rather a similar, fictional one with a deliberately silly name) is hardly flattering.

(I borrowed this book from the library.)

Author’s website.

Other reviews of this novel are at: Crime Scraps, The Independent and Spinetingler magazine.