Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Tangled Messes We Weave...

"Desperate times call for desperate measures."
We're all familiar with the saying, and most of us probably agree with the sentiment, to a greater or lesser extent. But what, precisely, qualifies as "desperate times"? And, even more importantly, what "desperate measures" do we find acceptable? Such questions--and eventually a few answers--lie at the very heart of brilliant Scottish crime novelist Val McDermid's A Darker Domain, a wonderfully-complex and gripping psychological tale of love, loss, friendship, politics--and a great deal of desperation, which ultimately serves to provide the motivation behind so many unhappy outcomes.
The story centers around a small Scottish police force's Cold Case team, as new evidence in one very "cold" case (going back more than 20 years) comes to light, and another, "new" case (also 20-odd years old) is reported for the first time. The lead detective in charge of the CC team, Detective Inspector Karen Pirie, has her hands full; the first case involves a long-unsolved, kidnapping-gone-wrong, in which a ridiculously-wealthy industrialist's adult daughter and her infant son were held for ransom, only to have the heiress-daughter wind up getting killed at the hand-off and the baby disappearing. When a reporter vacationing in Italy in the present day stumbles upon evidence--in this old Scottish kidnapping case--all the evidence and paperwork must be dug out of cold storage and gone over yet again, this time (so many years later) by a team familiar with the case only through memories of long-ago news reports and legend. Adding to the whole mess is the demanding, uber-wealthy father (now in his 70s but still as highly-respected--and feared--as ever), who expects immediate action and answers from the team, particularly Karen, whom he has hand-picked to lead the new investigation.
The second case the team faces involves a young woman who has only just now gone to the police station to report her father's mysterious disappearance more than 20 years earlier. She wouldn’t be doing so if it weren’t imperative that the man (long-thought to have scarpered away from his familial obligations in the midst of a miner's strike in the mid-80s) be found, in order to provide bone marrow for his gravely-ill grandson (who will die without the transfusion). Clearly someone who legged it 20 years back--never to return--has no wish to be found, however, which makes the case that much more challenging and frustrating for Karen, who feels touched by the tragedy of the story.
What follows is a fascinating look at how Karen and her little Cold Case team try to unravel both mysteries simultaneously, with precious little help from anyone who was involved in the cases two decades ago. Everyone is bitter. The miners who stuck out the strike--and who suffered great deprivation because of it, since no one had money for anything--have nothing good to say about the man believed to have taken off to get mining work elsewhere (leaving his wife and daughter behind). The industrialist who lost his daughter (and grandson) during the botched kidnapping hand-off is outraged that his grandson (or a body) was never found, nor the kidnappers ever identified and punished. The needs and demands of these two cases--and everyone involved--play against each other; which case is more urgent--finding the missing father, to save the life of the grandson he doesn't even know exists, or finding the kidnappers/killers--and possibly the missing grandson--for the uber-rich, powerful, and influential old man, who tries to intimidate Karen by making threats to her career?
This isn't a simple crime story, though. (For anyone who's never read her work, McDermid doesn't "do" simple. ;)) Neither case is what it appears to be on the surface--not what everyone accepted as the "truth" back when each event occurred, not what the police concluded (in the kidnap case) to be the likely scenario, and not what any of the characters with an active current role in either case wants anyone to know. There are layers upon layers, as the team slowly uncovers just who is hiding what, and from whom, and where and how and why--and as they realize that there is an unexpected intertwining of the two, seemingly-disparate stories.
By the end of the book, everything makes a crystal-clear kind of sense. The very bad choices people made--and the results they're forced to live with--are exposed, and the reader is forced to confront how she/he feels about those choices (and the results). 
This is a thought-provoking book, as it offers a compelling look at a bit of history (the Scottish mining strike in the mid-80s was very real, and very serious) via a taut, well-told tale of suspense. As is the norm for a book by McDermid, this is an intelligent story, a smart psychological drama that pulls you in and maintains your interest for 350 pages. It's well worth the effort it takes to keep everything (and everyone) straight. :)
GlamKitty rating: 4.75 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

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