Book Review: A Darker Domain, by Val McDermid

Val McDermid reads from her new novel, A Darker Domain; With a nod to Agatha Christie, crime with wit and a brogue

TVR Books | Dragos Ungurean | May 2009

Scottish writer Val McDermid at Thalia Buchhandlung (Photo: Mimsy Möller)

A Taste of Scottish Mystery

Two cold cases resurfaced at the same time, and it’s up to Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie and journalist Bel Richmond to get to the bottom of them… Scottish crime writer Val McDermid’s eyes light up as she dives into the narrative, a winding storyline and thickening plot that quickly stray from the typical.

McDermid was in Vienna Apr. 24, on a book tour that would take her across Austria, Germany and Switzerland, to read from her new mystery, A Darker Domain, recently published in German by Droemer Knaur, Munich. The new novel is set in her home province of Fife, in the small towns of East Wemyss and Kirkcaldy, Scotland. A missing persons report has been filed in nearby Glenrothes police headquarters. The only catch is that the guy has been gone for 25 years – a perfect challenge for "cold-case" chief Karen Pirie.

Some 60 people were packed into the book-lined foyer at the Thalia Buchladen on Landstraßer Hauptstraße, as McDermid entered from the rear with actor Boris Aljinovic, each with a copy of the book in hand, ready to read – McDermid in her broad, Fife English and Aljinovic from the German translation. On the red carpet to the right of the stage area, Thalia had provided the readers with an enticing wooden rack full of selected Austrian beers, Ottakringer Gold Fassl, Puntigamer, Edelweiss, Eggenberger.

The atmosphere was decidedly mellow, but it was not just because of the beer. With ribald humor and hilarious self–mockery, McDermid took easy control of the scene.

"Being a writer is close to having a mental problem," she joked. "I catch myself at times talking to myself in dialogue." She opened the book and, in her voice thick as a bagpipe, unfurled the story, a second case in Tuscany, also 25 years past, where journalist Bel Montgomery, jogging through the hills, stumbles upon an abandoned villa with a dark secret…

Earlier, I had met with McDermid at the restaurant of her hotel in the 3rd District, where she took me through the development of her ideas for the book. We sat out on a terrace secluded under a canopy of trees, perfect for an in-depth interview.

She had started writing the book where she was vacationing in Tuscany. "One of my friends went for a jog in the morning, returning with the story about how she had found a decrepit villa falling apart a few kilometers away," says McDermid, "so I decided to use this as a way for our main character Bel to discover what she discovers."

Inside, Bel finds ransom posters for a kidnapping that happened all those years ago. The kidnap victims were a wealthy businessman – the third richest man in Scotland – his daughter and his baby grandson. The crime occurred in East Wemyss, strikingly close to the first case.

Both stories revolve around the theme of family issues and financial difficulties, which McDermid is familiar with from growing up in Wemyss during the Miners’ Strike.

The idea to use the Miners’ Strike of 1984 came to her while at a football match in Fife. "We were discussing the politics of the strike," recalls McDermid, "and I realized, what better way than to use that as a backdrop for our missing Mick Prentice."

While she plots traditional mysteries, she also focuses on developing a sense of local color. She sees herself in the legacy of the female legends in the genre; Agatha Christie is one of them. "Christie’s writing is like clockwork, it just rolls on and makes perfect sense at the end." She also credits Robert Louis Stevenson for "being so dynamic; he writes in every genre, adventure, children’s poetry. In all, his prose is excellent."

In A Darker Domain, she creates a sensual setting in the caves on the shore of East Wemyss. These were a crucial part of both cases as well as in her own life. "I used to play in those caves growing up," McDermid remembers. "We would always play a game to see who would go furthest, because it became dark after a couple meters. I realized these caves were the perfect setting for some of the action this book brings."

The towns and mining villages were all completely real, although the true story of the Wemyss area is much deeper and solemn than in the novel.

"Nobody liked the Wemyss family because of the low wages they paid everybody working for them," she says, "so I destroyed their castle and put Newton of Wemyss there instead." Thus the only fake town in the book happens to be Newton of Wemyss, a sort of spiteful decision in defense of public pride.

The gathering at Thalia lasted two hours, during which McDermid gave glimpses into the story and insights into the personal side of A Darker Domain. Her next book, Fever of the Bone, to come out later this year, could break new ground. It has "taken me into unchartered waters," she said. Without giving anything away, "the killer has a completely different motive for killing, one that is revolutionary for the genre."


A Darker Domain

By Val McDermid

Harper Collins 2008

ISBN-10 0061688983

Shakespeare & Company Booksellers

1., Sterngasse 6

(01) 535 5053


In German as

Nicht Unter Tag

Verlagsgruppe Droemer Knaur

München 2009

Available at all major bookstores

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