Tierney reviews Report for Murder by Val McDermid

Originally hired to write an article about a fundraising gala at a girls’ boarding school, struggling journalist – and self-proclaimed “cynical socialist lesbian feminist” – Lindsay Gordon is embroiled in a murder investigation when the fundraiser’s star, renowned/reviled cellist Lorna Smith-Couper, is found dead, garrotted by her own cello string. Lindsay digs into the murder with the help of playwright and school alumna Cordelia, and romance slowly blooms between them. But Lindsay’s interest in finding the killer takes on new urgency when her friend Paddy, a housemistress at the school, becomes the police’s chief suspect. Through interviews with the many people who seemed to have motive to do away with Lorna, Lindsay attempts to unravel the mystery and unmask the murderer before it’s too late for Paddy.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read. McDermid’s mystery novels are engaging: they’re the kind of mystery novels that you end up racing through in one go, hanging on every word until the very last sentence. She has a flair for putting characters in peril and deftly pulling them out in unexpected ways, and Report for Murder, full of fun twists and turns, is no exception. And despite the fact that it was published in 1987, it doesn’t feel too dated (except when Lindsay is phoning in her reports to her editor).

The novel is McDermid’s first published work though, so it doesn’t showcase all of her usual fluidity with the vagaries of the murder plot. The drama occasionally felt heavy-handed, and many of the characters’ motivations did not feel particularly believable. Lindsay’s own personality occasionally felt heavy-handed as well (at one point, she drives several hours away to confront a murder suspect face-to-face, alone, without telling anyone where she is going). At times she is a one-dimensional character: she has odd conversations with other characters in which she shares her ideals and a values in a way that feels wooden and bland. And the novel is driven much more by talk than by action – which makes sense, given that Lindsay is a journalist.

Despite these flaws, Lindsay is an engaging character, and the novel pulls the reader in. Lindsay’s romance with Cordelia is one of the novel’s strengths: though it ties in only minimally with the murder plot, it exists cohesively with the mystery, fleshing out Lindsay’s character and offering a fitting counterpoint to the drama of the investigation. Though this blossoming relationship is not the novel’s focal point, it is nimbly woven into the story, and doesn’t feel forced or extraneous.

If you’re a fan of the lesbian mystery novel genre, Report for Murder is worthy of your time, though I can’t speak for the rest of the Lindsay Gordon series as I have yet to read any of the other novels. I am working my way through Val McDermid’s novels (based on their availability at my local public library) and I recommend reading some of her other works as well, though you can skip the incredibly transphobic The Mermaids Singing. The Kate Brannigan series has a lively (albeit straight) protagonist and some lesbian supporting characters, and some of McDermid’s standalone novels have lesbian characters as well: Trick of the Dark boasts a cast full of queer women, (both protagonists and antagonists) and an excellent unputdownable mystery to boot.

[Trigger warning for suicide of a secondary character.]

Isabelle reviews Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid

Trick of the Dark is a stand-alone psychological thriller by famous British author Val McDermid.
Clinical psychiatrist, Charlie Flint is sent a mysterious bundle of press clippings about the murder of a man on his wedding day and the subsequent trial and conviction of his two business partners.
Charlie soon identifies the sender of the mysterious envelop: the mother of the bride and her former Oxford tutor at Saint Scholastika’s, Corinna Newsam. When confronted by Charlie, she confesses that she would like her to look into the case as she is convinced that two innocents have been convicted; instead she puts the blame on her daughter Magda’s new love interest.
Suspended from her job, awaiting a hearing by the General Medical Council which will decide whether or not she can be reinstated as an expert in her field and thus with plenty of time on her hands, Charlie readily welcomes a distraction from real life.
Under normal circumstances, Charlie Flint would have consumed all the media coverage of the trial of Philip Carling’s killers. It wasn’t quite the sort of murder that was right up her street, but there were good reasons why this particular case would have interested her. But nothing was normal right now. Her professional life was in shreds. The destruction of reputation, the prohibition against doing the one thing she’d ever been any good at and the continued threat of legal sanction alone would have been enough to distract Charlie from the news stories. But there was more.
The headline news in Charlie Flint’s world was that she was in love and hating every minute of it. And that was the real reason she was oblivious to all sorts of things that normally would have fascinated her.
The narrative alternates between a third-person focus on Charlie’s inquest and and a personal narration as Jay Stewart writes a sequel toUnrepentant, her successful misery-lit memoir.
As a child Jay was neglected by her drug-addled mother, then repressed by a domineering stepfather when her mother went from hapless junkie hippie to born-again Christian. For her getting a place at Oxford meant the most certain way of leaving her gruesome past behind. After graduating Jay founded a prosperous dot.com company, selling it for millions shortly before the digital bubble burst. She is now running another successful website. Yet every time someone stands between Jay and ‘what she wants they simply happen to die.’
It seems it is now Charlie’s job to find out whether Jay is the ruthless serial killer Corinna suspects or merely the victim of a fateful series of coincidences. The story telling is crafty and the way ‘two’ versions of the same story unfold makes it more compelling and provides a few inside/internal cliffhangers.
Trick of the Dark is a terrific page turner so make sure that you have a free weekend before embarking on this novel – turn off your mobile and ignore outside distractions – because, once you start, you won’t be able to stop until you reach the end.