A Darker Domain
By Val McDermid
Paperback, $15.95, 271 pp.
Reviewed by Gloria Feit
The "darker domain" of the title is the world of the coal miner. The author comes by her knowledge of that world almost genetically, as both of her grandfathers were coal miners.
One story line arises out of the national miners' strike in the UK, coincidentally something I, living in the US and not familiar with that struggle, had just seen brought to creative life in the current theatrical staging of Billy Elliot. At the height of the hardships and tensions engendered by the lingering strike, Mick Prentice, for reasons best known to himself, leaves his wife and children alone and ostracized in their community, giving his family "instant pariah status." Nine months into the strike, he was one of six men who "disappeared [apparently] . . . to Nottingham to join the blacklegs," i.e., strikebreakers. Mick's daughter Michelle ("Misha") Gibson files a missing persons report with Karen Pirie, DI and head of the Cold Case Review Team of the Fife Constabulary in Scotland. Though her mother had received money from time to time, postmarked from Nottingham but with no return address on the envelopes, a search following a present family crisis has made Misha aware of the fact that her father has well and truly disappeared. She tells Karen: "Take it from me, Inspector. He's not where he's supposed to be. He never was. And I need him found."
Karen describes herself as "a wee fat woman crammed into a Marks and Spencer suit, mid-brown hair needing a visit to the hairdresser, might be pretty if you could see the definition of her bones under the flesh," and "always a sucker for anything that made people shake their heads in bemused disbelief. Long shots were what got her juices flowing." And so she takes on the challenge of tracking down Mick Prentice.
The second story line deals with Annabel ("Bel") Richmond, an ambitious freelance reporter who by chance stumbles across startling new evidence in another old case: the kidnapping of the daughter and grandson of a rich and powerful "captain of industry." The daughter was killed during a botched ransom payoff, the kidnappers never found. When Bel approaches the man, he decides to end his long inaccessibility and to use agents of both the media and the police for his own ends to find his grandson, as well as the person(s) responsible for the events that daily continue to haunt his life. Those agents are Bel herself, to whom he promises sole access, and DI Karen Pirie (to a point).
As Karen states, "Cold cases . . . They'd break your heart. Like lovers, they tantalized with promises that this time it would be different. It would start out fresh and exciting, you'd try to ignore those little niggles that you felt sure would disappear as you got to understand things better. Then suddenly it would be going nowhere. Wheels spinning in a gravel pit. And before you knew it, it was over. Back to square one."
This is the story of two such cases, and two remarkable and dedicated young women, each searching for the truth in their separate investigations, in which each anticipates great professional rewards for a successful outcome. The book proceeds in non-linear fashion, as flashbacks and changes of scene from Tuscany to Edinburgh to mining towns as were lead the reader forward through a maze. The characters are well-drawn, and I particularly liked one with the charming name of River Wilde, the daughter, she explains, of "hippy parents." The author does a masterful job limning these disparate tales, up until the very end, which was, I am dismayed to state, a disappointment to this reader. Nonetheless, Ms. McDermid's many fans will, I think, enjoy the book.