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Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Field of Darkness, by Cornelia Read (trade, $12.99) (c2006)

Cornelia Read chose to set her debut novel in 1988 Syracuse, New York, a time before cell phones, Googling, and widespread computerized databases. Had there been such things, half the story could not be told and perhaps the murderer would have been caught sooner. And we would have missed quite a tale.

Read's heroine, Madeline Dare, shares a great deal of the author's own history, including the impoverished but centuries-old blueblood line. In an extensive afterword, Read expands on what she's cribbed or distorted from her own past. She is careful to say that richer does not mean better. And you feel her sincerity when she says that.

Madeline is a reporter of green bean casseroles and household tips, not an intense investigative journalist, but that is what she finds herself becoming when her father-in-law shows her some military dog tags he plowed up on leased land. That long sentence should have set off a few dissonant bells. Plow? Green bean casseroles?

Although she is blueblood born and raised, without money Madeline must make her way in the world. She fell in love with Dean, the son of a upstate New York farmer, whose relatives include conservative, narrow-minded sons-of-a-gun with sobriquets like "Wimpy" and "Weasel." (Actually, not unlike Madeline's own conservative, narrow-minded sons-of-a-gun relatives with sobriquets that incorporate impolite four-letter words. But Madeline's relatives are richer and, relatively speaking (!), way more dysfunctional.) She followed love to Syracuse and acquired a job with the local newspaper, writing about green bean casseroles and the like.

The aforementioned dog tags that Madeline's father-in-law plowed up may or may not be related to the murders of two young women in that same field many years ago. Madeline was a young child and living far away in California at the time, but it is these unsolved murders she is compelled to follow. That is because the dog tags contain the name of Lapthorne Townsend. Madeline's favorite cousin. Her childhood crush. A blueblood living a privileged life in Manhattan and Oyster Bay, a world away from Syracuse.

Reluctant to believe that Lapthorne, named after a disgraceful ancestor who raped and pillaged the land, is guilty, she reluctantly plunges into investigating the murders. She enlists the help of Ellis, a former fellow debutante, and Kenny, a former cop-turned-bar/dive-owner. After another murder occurs, it is clear that Madeline has stirred up some dangerous waters. Her guilt over precipitating the murder drives her to travel from a down-home honkey-tonk, in which she interviews a scary "double vet" suspect, to the mansions of home with her eccentric relations.

One of the attractions of this book is the wild contrasts. Madeline is a former wild child and is still a sassy chick, but she (sort of) knows her silverware and (sort of) minds her manners. Kenny's bar/dive is contrasted with Oyster Bay's private bars and silver flasks, although everyone gets drunk just the same. Dean's brother, winner of the family farm by virtue of primogeniture, snipes at Dean, but it lacks the cutting edge of some of Madeline's relatives, for whom nastiness is a finely-honed art form.

A Field of Darkness is very entertaining, especially with the gossipy blueblood stuff, and smartly done.

1 comment:

  1. Super book! I love her writing, and have re-read this more than once to catch ever bit of wit and brains and truth in this completely credible tale of crazy families and love and what "home" and "family" really mean.