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A Darker Domain, Val McDermid, Harper, $24.99.

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

Any money spent on a Val McDermid book is money very well spent. She has somewhat quietly—here in the States, anyway—become simply one of the very best of contemporary mystery writers. While Scotland is now full of original and gifted writers like Denise Mina, Ian Rankin, Mo Hayder and Stuart MacBride, McDermid was around first and she could give any writer a lesson on how things are done. Her books have all the elements of great writing—plot, character, setting and lovely prose. All are intertwined, all important, making the end effect usually irresistible. This is certainly the case with her latest novel, A Darker Domain.

I personally got hooked on McDermid when I read her masterpiece A Place of Execution, a book that, like Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, is one of the great reads of the last 20 years or so. I was then caught by her Tony Hill series, some of which may be familiar to readers because they have been made into BBC films. But McDermid is really a true novelist and she's always done standalones, some more successful than others, and this one is, to me, one of her more brilliant efforts. As is often the case in a McDermid novel, the plot threads are many and seemingly completely unrelated. But a woman who thanks her grandparents in her dedication for introducing her to Agatha Christie has plot on her mind—never forget that while she's a wonderful novelist, she's also a terrific pure mystery writer.

There are two main threads to the story in this book, one involving the very wealthy Catriona Grant, and one the very impoverished (as a child, at least) Misha Gibson. Tying the two stories together is Detective Karen Pirie, head of Cold Cases in Fife. Misha Gibson's father has been missing for 24 years, and she's only now reported him as a missing person. When he left home, Misha was only 4 years old. Catriona Grant, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, had been murdered in a kidnap plot 24 years ago. Her infant son had gone missing at the same time, never to be heard from again. As it happens, new evidence in Catriona's case has recently come to light, and Catriona's father has specifically requested Karen. What Catriona's father wants, he gets—he's practically a Scottish institution.

Misha is desperate to find her missing father because her son needs a bone marrow transplant, or he will die. And of course Catriona's father is desperate to find out if his long missing grandson is alive. One way or another the journey to unravel what has happened takes Detective Pirie back to the hard times of the 80's, when so many miners' families were starving; to Italy; to a series of caves along the coast that are covered in cave paintings, and which the long missing Mick was known to have an interest in.

The beauty of a McDermid novel is that even with a very complicated plot like this one, you as a reader are never confused; each character is written about in an indelible manner so that you remember who they are. The other thing about this author is that the emotional underpinnings are fully fleshed out—you can understand people's motivations and behaviors maybe even better than if you were living alongside them. To me, that's what great writing is all about. It gives you an insight into human behavior, and if you're really lucky, you also get a great story to go along with it. Ms. McDermid supplies both elements.


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