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.

9 thoughts on “Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid

  1. Maxine – I couldn’t have put it better myself. I think you’ve summarised very effectively the strong points of this novel, and McDermid really is a polished writer. You’ve also done a fine job of pointing out some issues with it. In the end, I suppose it all depends on the purpose for which one reads. I agree with you, though that in sum, this is a stylish page-turner.

  2. Thanks for this review. I think even though you point out some good points this has tipped me over into the ‘won’t bother’ column. I always like McDermid when I hear her interviewed and I want to like her books but I’ve never really found one I like all that much. The couple of Tony Hill ones that I’ve read were over the top gory (which has put me off the audio one that has been on my iPod for a year or more) and I think I’ve read one of the Kate Branigan ones but I don’t remember it at all and I was reading a friend’s copy of The Grave Tattoo while at their holiday house but when I had to leave without finishing the book I wasn’t tempted to go find another copy to finish off.

  3. Well, you have made me quite curious, and as I have liked most of the McDermids I have read, I´ll probably try it – but no urgency.

  4. Very interesting review, especially since it appears as if this book is not gory nor super-violent. I have read a few of McDermid’s novels, but want to read more. Do you l recommend “A Darker Domain,” and “The Grave Tattoo,” as good books, which are not overly violent.
    By the way, am reading Gianrico Carofiglio’s second book in his series about the Bari attorney, having read the first.. It’s easy-to-read, yet substantive, what I need now. Wish he had a huge series. Could read legal thrillers like this constantly…don’t have to be on pins and needles, yet thinking is required. And the protagonist is likeable.

  5. Not sure what it is exactly, but I never seem to find one of her books that I want to try, even though I know a lot of people like them. Here’s another that I’ll leave on the shelf.

  6. I haven’t read this one, but certainly a dearth of suspects does mean an extra challenge for the writer to keep the reader engaged at all levels.

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