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)

Classic Gothic Tale Done Right

It seems highly likely that Deanna Raybourn grew up on a steady diet of those deliciously-atmospheric gothic novels... the ones peopled by intelligent young heroines--hampered only by the (mis)fortune of their sex; dark, brooding, mysterious men (not-quite heroes, but fantastically appealing, nonetheless); and a certain number of crazed (whether caused by a chance of birth, serious illness, or being forced to endure one too many personal/emotional traumas) characters; all of whom can be seen, by turns, milling or skulking about one stately manor house or another (which are always replete, naturally, with a surfeit of dark, draughty corners and a multitude of well-hidden secrets), or scurrying along busy city sidewalks with some stealthy plan in mind. Yes, I think such novels must have been akin to mother’s milk for the supremely-talented Ms. Raybourn, since favorable comparisons to the like seem inevitably to spring to mind when reading her books. 
Raybourn’s suspenseful series introducing us to the inimitable Lady Julia Grey begins with 2007’s stellar debut, Silent in the Grave. In the grand tradition of those classic, gothic page-turners, SitG quickly ensnares the reader, then continues to enthrall for another 500+ pages. We are told of a key death in the very first sentence, and in the paragraph which follows we learn that it is hardly a peaceful or tidy death (when is a “still twitching” body tidy?). As simply as that, the stage is set for a book which promises to be something rather out-of-the-ordinary.
Even though our heroine suddenly finds herself a young widow--for it is her youngish husband, the delicate-of-constitution Edward, who has died--she is neither grief-stricken (as would have been the case were she madly in love with him), nor relieved (had he been an ogre or an utter cad to her). Contributing to her calm acceptance is the (seeming) manner of death: natural causes. Edward, after all, came from exceedingly frail stock--his forebears all died quite young of heart problems--and he had been sickly the whole of his life. When he collapses at the party, therefore, no one present is terribly surprised. It is, instead, something of an entirely different nature which discombobulates the young widow--the inexplicable presence at this party of a mysterious (dark, brooding) stranger, who--after carrying the still-twitching, dying Edward upstairs to his bedroom--introduces himself as a certain Mr. Nicholas Brisbane. Brisbane, it seems, was secretly invited to the soiree by Edward on a matter of business... investigative business... about which Lady Julia knows nothing at all. Worse, Brisbane has the audacity to claim to her--following Edward’s rapid decline and the last rasping breaths he draws--that Edward has actually been murdered!
Lady Julia dismisses that as preposterous, and then proceeds to forget the handsome man and his wild theories, for she is promptly smothered by the attentions of her sizable and eccentric family (her father, nine siblings, and a pair of elderly aunts), most of which descend en masse upon news of her bereavement. (Well, on news of Edward’s death, anyway.) With her mandatory mourning period beginning immediately, Lady Julia is left to endure a long, very boring, and rather lonely year (her only distractions being occasional visits from family, reading, guiding her servants, and doing plenty of that milling about the late Edward’s depressingly-ornate home).
Various things conspire to happen, though--as they will do in a book of this sort--which cause Lady Julia to rethink everything she had previously believed true about her husband and his passing. As her official “full mourning” is nearing its end, she finds a threatening note hidden among Edward’s things, and she realizes that Brisbane may have been right with his crazy claims, after all. And so it is that almost a year after the fact, she finds herself seeking the not-entirely willing (nor trusting) aid of the handsome investigator. 
To say that the pair do not instantly hit it off would be putting it mildly. Lady Julia is frustrated that Brisbane doesn’t tell her everything he learns, or let her take a more active role in the investigation, and appalled that he views members of her family and staff with suspicion. He, on the other hand, finds her headstrong and impetuous to a fault, naive about those around her, and fears her putting the investigation--or herself--in jeopardy. (At least he never doubts her intelligence, though.) He is also plagued by debilitating migraines, which make him unavailable to her and to the investigation for days at a time... leaving her (in a state of impatience) to her own devices. (Does she manage to get into some trouble? Does he get a teensy bit irate about it? Yes and yes.) 
As the seemingly-unlikely duo follow a trail of clues leading them all over London, they gradually learn more about each other (as would, of course, be the case), in addition to unraveling the threads of the investigation, and a begrudging respect--along with something approaching attraction--is born. (Note: I would categorize SitG as an historical, romantic suspense novel--but using “romantic” in the classical sense instead of the more modern one, as this is neither a bodice-ripper nor an overly-sentimental tale; it is very definitely a suspenseful period-piece, with a slow-burning romantic element riding shotgun.)
Along the way, we also encounter a truly delightful assortment of auxiliary characters, whose rich depictions add great depth to the story. The sights and smells all over the city are well-described, contributing vibrant color and further realism to the world. And, whereas the original gothic novels could, at best, only hint at the most taboo or salacious subject matter, Raybourn is able to introduce such risque topics--but she does so in a manner appropriate to the story and to the era, handling everything tastefully and respectfully (and quite often, with a large measure of humor, which is delightfully present all through the book, as well).
SitG is a richly-layered and complex story, well deserving of its 500+ pages. The denouement is one not readily obvious from the beginning (and the “why” and “how” of it perhaps even less so), yet understandable and believable once all has been explained. Many characters--including their additional storylines--are firmly-established in SitG, so that their appearances in subsequent books blend seamlessly into the overall world, yet they do not feel incomplete within the parameters of just this one book. In all, it is really a fabulous read, and anyone who harbors a deep tendre for the great traditions of the classic gothic novel should find it a genuine pleasure... and will likely want to seek out the later books, post-haste.
GlamKitty rating: 5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)