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Author: Val McDermid

Title: Trick of the Dark

Publisher: Little, Brown

Trade Paperback: 451 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4087-0200-0

Price: £12.99

Publication Date: 02/09/2010

There must be something in the water/champagne at the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger ceremony. 2009 recipient Andrew Taylor’s first novel after winning, The Anatomy of Ghosts, takes place in Cambridge University and now Val McDermid, fresh from taking the 2010 award, has set Trick of the Dark around the fictional Scholastika College, Oxford [where McDermid was an undergraduate at 16 – yes, you did read that correctly]. There’s obviously a mystique about the cloistered environs of Oxbridge that appeals to crime authors and Oxford is an apt location for this engrossing and stylish novel in which nothing and no one can be taken at face value.

Charlie Flint’s psychiatric career is in tatters after her testimony exonerated a man who went on to savagely murder four women. So when her former university tutor, Corinna Newsam, asks for help, Charlie jumps at the chance. A brutal murder has left Corinna’s daughter Magda a widow on her wedding day, and all the evidence points towards the groom’s business partners. Except this is a crime novel, so open-and-shut cases should be treated with extreme suspicion. Added to this, Magda is now in a relationship with millionairess and bestselling misery memoirist Jay Stewart, Corinna’s former tutee, whose success in life has gone hand-in-hand with a string of deaths that have benefitted Jay. But is she, as Corinna suspects, a serial killer? And did she murder the groom to get Magda?

Charlie’s intrepid investigative style, reminiscent of amateur sleuths of yore and even to an extent of one of McDermid’s earlier characters, lesbian journalist Lindsay Gordon, feels wonderfully haphazard, especially in the current crime fiction world where police procedurals seem to be king. And one of the reasons why McDermid is at the forefront of crime fiction is her ability to evolve as an author and to keep pace with the constantly changing face of contemporary culture. Whilst some writers can seem trapped in the past, Trick of the Dark, like 2009’s Fever of the Bone, is filled with [believable] references to social networking sites and iPhones [although no iPads – tsk tsk, a bit behind the times!].

And I cannot finish this review without mentioning one of my favourite moments in the novel [which doesn’t really fit anywhere else, so has been shoehorned in here!]. It occurs whilst Charlie is reading up on the murder of Magda’s husband. Showing her sixteen years spent as a journalist, McDermid perfectly [and hilariously] mimics the Daily Mail and the Mirror’s language, all hyperbole and righteous indignation – the suspects are described as ‘city whizz kids’ and as an ‘evil pair’ who ‘enjoyed a night of wild sex’ after killing their friend. This despite the fact that they are both in their mid-thirties [and thus I would say probably not ‘kids’] and also that in Britain one is considered innocent until proven guilty [at least it was the last time I checked – maybe the tabloids have changed the rules].

Undoubtedly, Trick of the Dark is very different from the violent, torture-filled novels that McDermid is known for – but it’s no less potent a read for that. Her authorial strength resides in the ability to write twisting, psychological thrillers that are both appealing and often startlingly authentic, and this novel is no exception. Filled with love and lust, lies and half-truths, it’s a beguilingly clever book that kept me guessing right up until the moment of the final revelation, and I really hope it doesn’t remain as a stand-alone and that Charlie Flint returns in the future.

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