Madeline Dare comes from an old-money family, money that is so old that there is none left, as she puts it. Her parents divorced when she was young, so she was bought up in California, then New York. Now, however, she’s met the love of her life, Dean, married him and lives with him in Syracuse, upstate New York, circa 1988. Dean is obsessed with his plans to create an automatic method of grinding rail tracks, so is almost always away. Madeline is bored out of her mind, her only real distraction being a part-time job at the local newspaper, writing humorous foodie columns.
This is a book that is replete with local colour and observations of the American way of life. Dean comes from a family of farmers, so the reader is treated to descriptions of the contrasting lifestyles of the hardworking, redneck, uncultured in-laws, with the brittle world of the socially superior yet largely empty-headed relatives of Madeline.
Dean’s brother casually reveals that he’s discovered some dog tags while ploughing up a field. The site is where two young women were murdered 19 years ago, in 1969. The murderer was never found. Madeline is shocked to see that the dogtags belong to her favourite cousin Lapthorne, on whom she had a teenage crush, from around the time he was drafted to Vietnam. She determines to prove his innocence by investigating the crime herself, using Dean’s family connections and her own newspaper contacts in the process.
The tale is told at an extremely leisurely pace, with many observations of small-town life seen filtered through Madeline’s humorously sarcastic perspective – also applied to her family. She spends an inordinate amount of time missing Dean, who is rather a colourless, if handsome, character. This repetitive theme becomes a tiresome aspect of the book.
Half way through the book, Madeline comes across some evidence that exonerates her cousin, so she goes public with her intention to solve the crime. This decision rapidly stimulates some nasty events which hastily lead to a conclusion that echoes the opening page of the novel.
The main pleasures of A Field of Darkness are its detailed, well-written portrait of Syracuse, a decaying community; and the character of Madeline, who is both distinctive and who has an interesting selection of friends and relatives whom we come to meet during the book. As a crime novel, the pace is too slow and there is a dearth of suspects, even though the ending is quite chilling.
I bought this book. It was nominated for the Edgar award for best first novel.
Author’s website, where there are free excerpts and Q/As about this book and the next two in the series.