A Darker Domain (Karen Pirie 2) by Val McDermid

Scabs and kidnappers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As the miners’ strike of 1984 dragged on, the miners and their families were increasingly desperate, relying on donations of food from sympathisers and collecting wood for fuel. A group of miners from the Fife village of Newton of Wemyss secretly left one morning to make their way to Nottingham, where the pits had re-opened, worked by men who were considered traitors – scabs – by the men of the National Union of Mineworkers. That morning, Mick Prentice disappeared too, and it was assumed he had gone with the men to Nottingham. Now in 2007, his daughter has an urgent need to contact him but can find no trace, so she reports him as a missing person. Because of the length of time since he was last seen, Karen Pirie of the Cold Case Review Team takes on the investigation. But she’ll soon be distracted by another cold case that has resurfaced.

Long ago, the daughter of local business magnate Sir Broderick Maclennan Grant was kidnapped with her baby son and held to ransom. The pay-off went wrong – Catherine, the daughter, was killed and no trace has ever been found of the child, Adam, nor were the kidnappers ever caught. Now an investigative journalist, Bel Richmond, has happened across something while on holiday in Italy that may provide the key to the mystery. Sir Brodie uses his considerable influence to have the case moved to the top of Karen’s priority list…

When Val McDermid is on form, as she is here, there are few authors to touch her in terms of telling a great story. This series, by concentrating on cold cases, allows her to revisit aspects of Scotland’s past and she does so with a deep understanding of the effect of events on the lives of the people caught up in them. The miners’ strike was a major turning point for Scotland, and for Britain more widely, as the Prime Minister nicknamed the Iron Lady (Mrs Thatcher) and the most powerful union leader in the land nicknamed King Arthur (Arthur Scargill) met head on in a battle for supremacy: a battle in which, as always, the foot soldiers – the miners and their families – became little more than cannon fodder. McDermid doesn’t delve deeply into the rights and wrongs of the dispute, but she shows with devastating clarity the impact the long-running strike had on mining communities, causing major hardship, testing old loyalties, straining marriages to their limits and dividing families, and leaving a legacy of bitterness that still lives on today.

She doesn’t allow the story to get lost amid the background, however. Karen soon discovers that there’s more to Mick’s disappearance than first appears. As she interviews his wife, still bitter about the disgrace he brought on his family by scabbing, and then the various other people who knew him back then, Karen gradually unearths a very human story with elements of love and betrayal, selfishness and greed, tragedy and guilt.

The other story too, the kidnapping, is just as human. Sir Brodie loved his daughter, perhaps too much, wanting to control her life and objecting to her choices, both in boyfriends and in career. As obstinate as her father, Catherine showed no desire to compromise or yield, leaving her mother trying to be the peacemaker in the middle. Her death left Sir Brodie not only bereaved, but with no opportunity for the reconciliation they might have had if they had been given time. Now, although he has made a new life for himself, Sir Brodie is still driven to find the kidnappers and have revenge, legally or otherwise, and to find what happened to the child – he has never given up hope that his grandson may be alive. He doesn’t have faith that the police will solve the crime after all this time, so he persuades the journalist, Bell, to investigate the Italian connection and, hoping for the scoop of a lifetime, she’s only too happy to oblige.

Val McDermid

The book skips about a lot between the various timelines and sometimes following Karen, sometimes Bel. But McDermid keeps total control, so that the reader never feels lost despite the complexities of plot and structure. It’s a fairly lengthy book but never dips or drags – the settings and story hold the attention throughout, and the characterisation is excellent, done with some degree of sympathy for even the least likeable among them. Karen herself is one of the most enjoyable detectives on the contemporary crime scene, not perfect but not an angst-ridden maverick, professional and skilled at her job, but with a life outside work. Here she’s working mostly with her long-term friend and now sergeant, Phil Parhatka, and there’s a welcome lack of the tedious sexism storyline most crime writers seem to feel necessary whenever they have a female protagonist.

One of her best, in my opinion, and considering how good she is, that’s saying a lot. Highly recommended.

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30 thoughts on “A Darker Domain (Karen Pirie 2) by Val McDermid

  1. This sounds excellent. I’m sure I’ve said this on your blog before but I really must read Val McDermid! I always enjoy her interviews when I see them, she’s so funny and clever. It’s a great device to use cold cases to look at history – as you say, the effects of the miners strike are still felt today.

    • I reckon she’s really on the top of her game in this series. I’ve enjoyed a lot of her other stuff, although the Tony Hill books got too dark and graphic for me eventually. But Karen Pirie is a great character and I’m delighted she’s set the series in Scotland, partly because I’m biased, but also because I think she understands her setting more thoroughly than when she sets her books in England. So if you do decide to read her, the Karen Pirie books would be the ones I’d recommend!

  2. Fabulous review! I read The Distant Echo and have this one in TBR pile. Will have to try and bump it up…I keep saying that when I read a great review of a book I have waiting and each one ends up going down the list again 😄

    • Thank you! 😀 I have The Distant Echo on the TBR – I’ve been reading this series all out of order, but they all work fine as standalones. Hahaha – I know! I think The Poisonwood Bible is the worst for me – I must have seen a million reviews of it and said every time that I’d bump it up the queue… one day! 😂

  3. Definitely a series on my radar – I’m quite partial to cold case stories, they appeal to my need to solve the longstanding mystery & finally find the justice :). I’ve read a smattering of Val McDermid’s very early books from the library, but didn’t find them particularly memorable, so hopefully this series will get me back into her work & I’ve had an ebook of the first title of the series ready to go for ages.

    • I like cold cases too, and McDermid handles them really well. I’ve been reading her on and off since she began and I think she’s got better a she’s gone along. I quite enjoyed the early ones, but it was really her Tony Hill series that made her stand out, although eventually that one got too dark and graphic for my tastes. This new series is my favourite of all her work – I think coming back to her own Scottish setting has given them a much fuller feeling. The characters ring truer to me, and I do like Karen Pirie as a detective. Hope you enjoy them when you get to them! 😀

  4. I added this series to my TBR from one of your previous mentions of it, so am hoping to get to it soon. Karen sounds like a breath of fresh air, as the embittered and/or drunken detective quite frankly does my head in, and there is a lot of him/her about in contemporary crime fiction, which is why I returned to my old vintage favorites for a while.

    • Yes, I’ve almost given up on contemporary crime fiction because I can’t take any more drunken, angst-ridden detectives with messy personal lives – it’s been done to death! Between that and them always feeling they have to show their liberal credentials, address “issues” and have fifteen twists – agh! No wonder I’m reading so much Agatha Christie! But Karen’s nicely normal and appealing, and the cases in this series are always interesting. And I love that McDermid has set them in her native Scotland. Hope you enjoy them! 😀

  5. Trust Val McDermid to create memorable characters like that, FictionFan. And you bring up a good point about her writing: she knows how to focus on the story, but still give the reader a sense of time and place and culture. That takes real skill and she has it. It sounds, too, as though this one doesn’t get too gory, which is a good thing for me.

    • Ha – it does have a rather shivery moment but she doesn’t get too graphic, and it almost falls into the category of black humour! I think her Scottish settings are working particularly well in this series, either because I’m biased, or because she’s just more at home with them. They have the feeling of arising naturally rather than having been researched, if that makes sense.

  6. “One of her best, in my opinion, and considering how good she is, that’s saying a lot.” Wow! I need to read her books. This one sounds like a great blend of crime detection and historical drama.

    • I guess if you’ve been topping the best sellers lists consistently for over 30 years, you must be doing something right! I do like this new series with its Scottish setting – of course, I may be biased… 😀

  7. I’ve not come across her before, FF, but your review sounds excellent, so I need to remedy that. Thank you for pointing me to interesting reads — and I love when a five-star review pops up on a Friday!

  8. I’ve still not read her, but don’t think I’m ready to jump into one of her series at this point, given they’re all fairly established. I do have a stand-alone on my wish list.

  9. I dont’ think ive ever read any Val McDiarmid actually, which makes me feel like a terrible mystery lover because i know she’s beloved by many. This sounds like a really in-depth but intriguing read!

  10. You remind me to go back to Val McDermid. I haven’t read this series so I’ll start with The Distant Echo and I see the library has an audio version with a Scottish narrator. I’ve become rather partial to listening to books written by Scottish or Irish authors read by someone with the appropriate accent (of course, helped by the fact I have no knowledge of regional dialects to distract me if the ‘wrong’ regional accent is used).

    • I seem to be reading this series backwards for some obscure reason, so I’ve still got The Distant Echo to read – haha! It probably makes more sense to read them the right way around… 😉 The Audible version is narrated by Tom Cotcher, whom I don’t know at all. But listening to the sample makes me think he’s Glaswegian rather than a Fifer. His voice sounds very attractive though and since all the lowland “educated” accents are pretty similar these days, I reckon he sounds fine for this series. The chap who narrates the Rebus books (Edinburgh setting) is Glaswegian too, but I love his narrations – they sound just right!

  11. Ok confession time. I’ve never read Val McDermid ….
    This one could be a good starting point though since I worked in a coal mining area during the strike so saw the impact very clearly

    • I love this Karen Pirie series – I think it’s my favourite of all her work. She’s great at showing the impact of these moments in recent history without getting too bogged down in them. The whole strike thing felt very accurate to me – definitely worth reading! 😀

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