A Darker Domain, by Val McDermid

2008. A cold missing persons case in a Scottish mining town reopens an unsolved twenty-two year old kidnapping and murder and leads Detective Inspector Karen Pirie to a pair of “unrelated” disappearances which together unravel the complex relationship between the miners and the most powerful man in Scotland.

If that sounds like a huge story, it is. We’ve got: Class warfare. Gender warfare. Abuse of power. Press connivance. Provincialism. Nationalism. Union busters and scabs. Art versus commerce versus love. Marital infidelity and betrayal. Families versus families versus neighbors and friends. Murder, robbery, conspiracy. And the 1984 miners strike in Great Britain.

Plus, to set the clock ticking, a young child is in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant from his missing father.

I admire Val McDermid and so do alot of other people. She’s won a shelf of awards and has had her characters and novels brought to life in acclaimed TV programs and serials. She doesn’t need me to write a few words about anything she’s done as journalist or novelist. Her place is secure. My two stars will twinkle in the nighttime sky unseen by anyone but me.

But I barely got through this book. Which made me wonder why we like one book and not another. What makes us connect to a character, say, or a voice? Why do we fall deeply into one story and not care about another? It isn’t simply that one book is well-written and another one isn’t. McDermid writes expertly. She is a master of her craft. I have read other work by her and been blown away.

I like the genre. I lived in London–not Scotland, I admit–and traveled the novel’s terrain. I remember the time and the history of the miners strike.

But reading this book was a chore. So why didn’t I just chuck it and move on to something else? No one forced me to keep reading. That’s what puzzles me.

I kept reading even though I felt led along by made-up characters purposefully created to bring out the class warfare etc as listed above. The plot was overly complex and over the course of four hundred pages it unfolded backwards, as any good mystery does, at a snail’s pace. It didn’t help that nothing was much of a surprise. It didn’t help that nearly all the characters were unlikeable, with the exception of the protag, DI Pirie. It didn’t help that–without giving anything away–a key character explained everything he did in a fifteen page letter, the epistolary equivalent of a drawing room confession, making that character utterly despicable in the process.

McDermid’s fans will probably tell me to get stuffed. Even though the author has deep heartfelt passion for the community of miners, that’s not enough to make for a great or even a good book. Her passion is genuine. The well-crafted book though is a failure. It is flat. It is predictable. It is paint-by-the-numbers.

I guess I’m getting to the reasons why I don’t like this book. But does that translate to why we don’t like one book over another? Do we need to believe, to be surprised, if not wowed, by either story, voice, or character? Do we need to be transported somehow somewhere? Do we need to be more than entertained? Do we need to look up from the book and consider our world a bit differently? What makes a story work, resonate, remain with us?

Don’t have those answers yet. Will keep trying.

Looking on the bright side though, if someone with McDermid’s talent can turn out an occasional clunker, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us. We might just turn the tables on the writing muses and toss off the odd winner.

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About M L RUDOLPH

M L Rudolph has worked for CNN among other American and British television and film companies. He has written for general interest and trade magazines and published his first novel, Facing the Son, A novel of Africa, on Amazon in 2011. More are on the way. Rudolph is a dual US/UK national and lives in Pasadena, CA. View all posts by M L RUDOLPH

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