Trick of the Dark, By Val McDermid

Dangerous liaisons are irresistible
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The Independent Culture

Despite once claiming that she was never going to make a living out of lesbian crime fiction, Val McDermid might have to eat her words with Trick of the Dark.

The main characters in this standalone novel are lesbians and, given the corpses that litter the pages, there is plenty of criminal activity too. If it sells as well as her recent titles, she needn't be too worried about the mortgage.

It begins with clinical psychiatrist Charlie Flint suspended from her job, frustrated with life and tempted to embark on an affair despite several happy years of marriage with Maria. So when an envelope arrives addressed to her, full of cuttings about a recent murder but no mention of the identity of the sender, she welcomes investigating it as a distraction from real life.

In the cuttings she recognises a university acquaintance and a child, now grown-up, whom she used to baby-sit for while at college. Soon she is drawn back to her alma mater in Oxford. Charlie's old tutor Corinna has used the cuttings as a lure to get her to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the death of her son-in-law. His stunning widow, Magda, Corinna's daughter and the one-time charge of Charlie, has taken up with a woman who scandalised Oxford by coming out.

While Charlie is our way into the story, the real star is Jay Macallan Stewart – alpha lesbian, misery memoirist, dotcom millionaire – and, Corinna suspects, a murderess. We come to know most about Jay, with sections devoted to her memoirs, which are set up to be unreliable, if fascinating. Jay is the working-class girl done good. She came to Oxford from a brutal childhood, took the town on her own terms and, it seems, won. But did she resort to murder to get to the top?

The book examines past lives, past loves, what we escape from and what we take with us. It sees characters coming to terms with their sexuality and the fall-out this can bring. It's an accomplished thriller, jumping from the past to the present and back with ease, taking in a range of characters and their perspectives. For me, the sign of a good thriller is that it leaves you pondering not whodunit within the pages but howdunit – how did the writer craft such a tricky tale – afterwards. Trick of the Dark had me ruminating for days.

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