Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read

In the end there may not be much more to the special gift of aristocrats than the old image of casual grace.... Worse, the image can’t seem to stand by itself. Its light must have a field of darkness, some dull impasto of despair with a glint of violence flashing through. Without fear, the image lacks shape and substance, and dissolves into a pale, thin air of American possibility. With it, the image comes clear, and so does the gift of courage.  Nelson Aldrich, Old Money (quoted in A Field of Darkness)
Madeline Dare was reared in an aristocratic New York family, with a legacy of robber barons and entrepreneurs who made their fortune desecrating the environment. She feels revulsion for their ruthlessness and snobbery and a slight nostalgia for their fading way of life, which seems to be lifted from the novels of Fitzgerald and Wharton. Now her branch of the family is essentially penniless -- "my money is so old there's none left."

Madeline is happily married and unhappily settled near her husband's family in Syracuse. She works, for a pittance, as a journalist, writing about tourist sites and recipes. She struggles with her obnoxious boss and periods of loneliness while her husband Dean, a railroad employee, is working in Canada.

Her life changes dramatically when her father-in-law tells her about a set of dog tags he found, on his land, at the site of a brutal murder that took place in 1969. Two young women were killed and left lying side by side with their heads wreathed in roses. The dog tags seem to link the bizarre crime to Madeline's favorite cousin, Lapthorne.

Before deciding whether to turn this evidence over to the police, Madeline needs to be sure Lapthorne wasn't involved. Her investigation leads her from the "rust belt" in upstate New York to the posh mansions of Long Island's Gold Coast, her family's ancestral home.

I stumbled upon this novel, quite by accident, while browsing the library shelves. A book titled The Crazy School caught my eye  -- how could I resist a title like that? A Field of Darkness happened to be the prequel, so I picked it up and perused it. I can never resist a good mystery, and this one looked intriguing.

The author hooked me, on the first page, with her vivid, eloquent descriptive writing.
The first night was already hot, so still the whine of the neighbor's dog carried right through our bedroom window. I heard a screen door yaw wide to let him out, the tired spring slapping it closed behind, the click of canine toes on sidewalk. 
This novel also captured my attention with beautiful writing, sharp wit, and -- most importantly -- the interesting, unique voice of the protagonist. Madeline is my kind of heroine. She's smart, funny, loyal, and kind. She also struggles with loneliness, guilt, insecurity, and a mountain of family dysfunction. 

Becoming an amateur sleuth doesn't come naturally to her. But she's armed with loyalty and persistence, and she manages to find help from myriad sources, including a former cop and ex-Vietnam vet who now runs a seedy bar, her long-time best friend; who calls Madeline "wild woman;" and a slightly shady auctioneer with a warm heart and a history of suffering at the hands of the Nazis. 

It was not too difficult to guess the identity of the perpetrator. However, the mystery was well crafted and intriguing, with a few twists to keep me guessing. I also enjoyed the flawed but loving relationship between Madeline and Dean, the ideological differences between Madeline and the politically conservative residents of Syracuse, and the humor throughout the novel.
     "It's an open shop, says so right here in the contract. (Dean said) This isn't work they can do, and they're trying to screw me out of a living, The union can suck my dick."
     I wanted to weigh in with Cesar Chavez, the Haymarket riots, to point out that unions benefited us all, raised he bar for everyone. But I knew part of my vehemence was family guilt for screwing over the "working man" in the abstract, while here was an actual and specific working man who had an opinion of his own, thank you very much."
     Plus, we'd had the same argument like twenty times already over the years, starting with a heated dinner conversation on our third date.
     So I just carried the dishes to the sink, not even turning on the kitchen light. And then I started to cry because what the hell was I pissed at him for, when he could have been hurt or even died -- the stupid heartrendingly dear scab fascist shithead.
I enjoyed this novel, and I missed Madeline's company a bit when the book ended. I will definitely read the rest of the Madeline Dare series, and I look forward to seeing how these characters develop through this amateur sleuth's continuing adventures.

Other Reviews: In Which Our Hero; Chaotic Compendiums; Reviewing the Evidence; MBTB's Mystery Book Blog

Rating: 4.5
5- Cherished Favorite4 - Keep in My Library3 - Good Read2 - Meh1 - Definitely Not
For Me


  1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and kind review. My fourth Madeline novel--Valley of Ashes--was published this week, and it's a pleasure to read about someone's first exposure to Field.

  2. Oooh! I hadn't heard of this author before now but I'm adding this one to my TBR list. I love a good mystery and the cover on this book is nice and creepy. Thanks for sharing!


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