Friday, September 24, 2010


Dr Charlotte 'Charlie' Flint's career as a psychiatrist is at risk after her evidence helped free a man innocent at that time, but who later went on to kill four women. Bored at her greatly reduced work load Charlie receives an anonymous package of press cuttings about a murder at her old Oxford college, and deduces it is from her former tutor Corinna Newsom, whose daughter Magda's husband Philip Carling was murdered on their wedding day.
Philip's business partners are standing trial as he apparently was going to reveal their illegal insider trading scams to the police, and this is accepted as the motive behind his murder.
Magda has now got involved with Jay [formerly Jennifer] Macallan Stewart, a wealthy lesbian internet entrepreneur. Corinna, a devout Catholic, believes Jay, who had a very traumatic upbringing, was responsible for the murder of a rival for the position of JCR [Junior Common Room] President when she was a student. There is also the suggestion that a business partner, and a potential Swedish rival also met their deaths at her hands.
Corinna who had used both Charlie and Jay, when they were students at St Scholastika's College, as baby sitters for her children, is now desperate to break up Magda's relationship with Jay.
Charlie, living with Maria, a cute dentist, is meanwhile lusting after Lisa Kent, who runs a very successful self-help programme, 'I'm Not OK, You're Not OK; Negotiating Vulnerability'.
While Charlie investigates Jay's possible crimes, Jay is writing a second volume in the story of her life and later the reader is given extracts from her first misery memoir, Unrepentant, which reveals the story of her traumatic childhood with an important detail censored.
Is Jay a serial killer? Is Magda in danger? Will Charlie leave Maria for Lisa Kent? Who did kill Philip Carling, and why?
These questions keep the reader turning the pages, until the satisfying if not entirely surprising denouement.

Val McDermid said she got the idea for this book when visiting St Hilda's, and seeing a wedding with a beautiful bride [who she realised she must have baby sat] and a self satisfied groom. What if the groom was dead by bedtime?

Val's first three novels twenty years ago featured Lindsay Gordon, the UK's first openly lesbian detective; the 6th Lindsay Gordon, 7 years ago was only issued as a paperback original and not well promoted. The relaxation of British society, and the opening up of British culture means that this is Val's most lesbian book with in her words a dyke on every page.
I am probably not the intended demographic for this novel and although Val has said she doesn't set out to hammer home a message or to titillate, I have to admit to have felt voyeuristic and quite excited by this passage.

Maria [the dentist] spread her toast and gave Charlie a wicked little smile. 'I'm always so bloody dutiful,' she said. 'Just for once, I feel like playing truant. Besides, I only ever book morning appointments on a Friday. It won't be the end of the world if I miss an afternoon's admin. I'll get Sharla to call my patients this morning. It won't kill them to rebook. There's nothing urgent, as far as I recall. What do you say? Shall I come? Shall we have a bit of fun?'

Val McDermid certainly knows how to get a retired male NHS dentist intrigued, and fascinated, by the very different world of private dentistry.

Trick in the Dark is a superb pastiche of the classic British detective story, and I found it hilariously funny in places. I do hope I was expected to have that reaction, because I loved the autobiographical snippets about accents, and the JCR presidency.
Val McDermid has become such an important crime writer that she is able to write a book in which all the major characters are lesbians, and it is published without hesitation by a main stream publisher. She must have enjoyed that enormously.
I recently read an article in which the journalist wrote; But after a few chapters their sexual orientation becomes incidental to solving the murders.

I do wish people would actually read the books they write about, because in this book the characters sexuality is integral to the whole story and the plot.
What I think amused me was that all of these women, from whatever backgrounds they came from, had been changed by Oxford into successful professional women with a lifestyle to match. A very pre financial meltdown scenario.
In this case the main characters consist of an author and internet business woman, a psychiatrist, a dentist, an oncologist, a self-help guru, and an Oxford don. It is rather like one of those superior Agatha Christie teasers where the servants are never mentioned.
Ms McDermid was the first state school pupil to be a student at St Hilda's, but she manages to capture that very English upper class idiosyncrasy of using childhood nicknames into adulthood.

'Will you retire at the same time as Dad?' Catherine asked Corinna. 'I bet you are making plans already.'
Corinna looked startled. 'I've a few years yet, Wheelie.'

I think it was E.M. Forster who said he could only write about people that I am, I want to be or that irritate me, and there is obviously much of that in Val McDermid's book.
More importantly the book does relate how different people cope with coming out, and society's reaction to that, but it also emphasizes that some of the more relevant divisions in society are not between gay and straight, but between rich and poor, town and gown, or Oxbridge and the rest.

I thought this was a superbly entertaining read, perhaps intended to be a little ironic, but proving that old adage that to produce a successful book the author should write about something they know.

I expect there will be a Lithuanian receptionist, Polish barman, and a Romanian breakfast waitress like everywhere rural these days. The locals escape as soon as they can to cities with anonymous nightlife and better wages. Thanks heavens for the Eastern Europeans or our leisure culture would collapse.

I read this book as part of my Female Crime Writer Challenge, and also because Val McDermid was so interesting, and amusing, when I heard her speak at the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival in 2009.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman - Thanks for this excellent and in-depth review. I've been wanting to read this own, and you've whetted my appetite even more. You make such an interesting point, too, about social divisions. They so often are integral to the way we relate to one another...

9:37 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

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10:01 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

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10:01 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Margot.
Social class is still more important in the UK than in most countries, and it must have been some achievement for Val McDermid, from a state school, to be elected JCR president at St Hilda's College, Oxford.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

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10:01 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Margot.
Social class is still more important in the UK than in most countries, and it must have been some achievement for Val McDermid, from a state school, to be elected JCR president at St Hilda's College, Oxford.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Blogger hiccups.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Bernadette said...

Hopefully blogger only does this once?

Thanks for this excellent review Norman, I have been wondering whether or not I should read this as I really enjoyed listening to her talk about it during a radio interview while she was here but I've not had a lot of success with her books in the past (the Tony Hill ones mostly which I find just too gruesome and bloody). You have convinced me to give it a go.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Bernadette. I had been put off reading any of the Tony Hill books by a gruesome TV program, but she was so amusing and charming at Budleigh Salterton I decided to give this one a go.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Kerrie said...

Good review Norman - I have it on the horizon somewhere

3:37 PM  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, add me to the list of those choosing not to read the Tony Hill books for the aforementioned reasons.

However, I have liked every interview of and article about Val McDermid which I've read.

So I've been trying to find a book by her to read, which may be the one about the miners' strike.

I don't like serial killer books, but I'll keep looking.

I think a major reason that I, as someone from the U.S., haven't liked reading dead English authors nor even some mysteries, is that I do bristle at the classism.

Much of it turns me off, although I do like the PBS series on Inspector Lynley, with Sgt. Haver, who adds so much to that series.

And I think it's a reason why I don't particularly like (gasp!) reading Agatha Chrystie's books, although I liked Hercule Poirot years ago, but dropped it eventually, for various reasons.
(This is probably shocking to many mystery readers, as it's sacrireligious, I'm sure.)

Now take two good working-class police detectives, like those in Jim Kelly's "Death Wore White."

Or the characters in Denise Mina's Garnethill trilogy or her Paddy Meehan character. I am interested in them (although I didn't like the latest book about the woman police detective too much).

10:03 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

hanks Kerrie.

Kathy, I have read my first Agatha Christie book, Five Little Pigs, for about 30 years and loved it. You never quite get used to the class divisions if you live in England.
Today the result will be announced on the Labour leadership contest. Five contenders for the Labour Party leadership, the party of the working class, and 3 went to Oxford and 2 to Cambridge.

I agree Barbara Havers aka Sharon Small made that TV series and it is sad there will be no more.

2:37 AM  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, sad, no more Inspector Lynley/Barbara Haver series...I agree.

In the U.S., there are, of course, class divisions, but no royalty in titles and so forth, but certainly multi-millionaire dynasties, many of which contain politicians and influence-peddlars. And it is, as Robert Reich has said, very hard for people to have upward class mobility.

Anyway, if anyone can suggest a Val McDermid book without a lot of graphic violence or a serial killer, please suggest away.

1:34 AM  
Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

The best Val McDermid to read, Kathy and Norman, is one of her "normal" ones, eg The Grave Tattoo, a standalone about the Lake District (a good solid crime novel), or The Darker Domain, reflecting on the long lasting impact of the 1980s miners' strike in Britain (but a good mystery, too).

12:54 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Maxine. We are still feeling the impact of the miner's strike, as our young people aspire to jobs in the media, law and politics while shunning industry and science.

1:42 AM  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Thank you Maxine, for these two suggestions. Had thought of "A Darker Domain," due to the miners' strike theme, but not of "The Grave Tattoo," which I'll put on the TBR list.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love Val's books - loved the wire in the blood series - but this book was a complete disppointment.

Not up to her usual standard.

11:02 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

This was the first of Val's books that I had read, but I do have a signed copy of Fever of the Bone to read so I will be able to compare the two. Thanks for your comment Jennifer.

2:59 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think the Tony Hill novels are superb, but was also disappointed by this one. I don't think the standard of writing is anything like as good, regardless of the subject matter. The story is extremely tame as well. I haven't gained any remarkable insights into lesbian lives either. It almost seems to me that this one was written years ago and revamped for publication now. I'm now planning to reread the Tony Hill ones to see if I'm right, and would encourage anyone to read them. Even though they are gruesome in parts they are so powerful that they stand up as some of the best novels of this type ever written.

12:00 PM  

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