Val McDermid is back with a stand-alone novel, A Darker Domain– though some of the minor characters have appeared in other books, most notably the forensic archaeologist River Wilde who was first encountered in The Grave Tattoo. The Darker Domain is an exiting, well-constructed novel that is a perfect showcase for the author's considerable talents. Like The Grave Tattoo, A Darker Domain is one of the author's "mainstream" books, in other words there are no gory details, unlike some of her other output.
DI Karen Pirie is in charge of the Fife police cold-case unit. She's a woman of a certain age and weight, and an attractive protagonist – confident, professional, but with a sufficient touch of introspection and self-awareness to make her interesting. She's presented with two apparently unconnected cases: first, that of a miner who disappeared one night during the terrible strike in the 1980s which ruined an industry, the local community, and whose effects are still felt today. The man's daughter wants Karen to find him because her son is dying of a rare blood disease, and she's urgently seeking donors. Karen's second case is that of the missing grandson of the local laird and stinkingly rich magnate Broderick Grant. About 20 years ago, Grant's daughter and baby son were kidnapped and ransomed: in a botched attempt to rescue them, the daughter was killed and the kidnappers disappeared with the ransom and the baby (presumably). Now, a journalist has uncovered new evidence during a holiday in Italy, and convinces Grant to let her work on the case. Because the police were involved in the kidnapping disaster, and because the man in charge, Lawson, was subsequently imprisoned for murder (a previous case of Karen's, though I don't think that this has been recorded in a book), and because he's bloody-minded and arrogant, Grant is keen to keep the police out of it this time round.
The first two-thirds of the book are gripping. Val McDermid is a superb storyteller and her account of the miner's strike is harrowing, moving and authentic. The novel is unfalteringly sure-footed with the many switches between the cases, time, and people's perspectives. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt that in the last part of the book the tension was not maintained quite to the pitch of the earlier parts, perhaps partly because I had guessed what was going on in both stories, and the ending is a little rushed. However, there are a few surprises still in store, and although the two main themes are pretty downbeat to the bitter end, there are optimistic outcomes to a couple of subplots. One of the things I appreciated most about the book is the character of Karen Pirie - I like her, her attitudes, the way she deals with colleagues above and below her in the hierarchy – and I hope to read more about her in future.