Feature Book: Trick Of The Dark

by Val McDermid
Little Brown

With over 20 published novels under her belt, Val McDermid is a doyenne of crime fiction. While you can be guaranteed of a good read by picking up any one of McDermid’s books, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love and enjoy those with lesbian characters most.

McDermid’s first published novel, Report For Murder introduced the world to lesbian journalist turned sleuth, Lindsay Gordon. A series of Lindsay Gordon crime novels were published before McDermid decided to push her work into the mainstream of the genre.

Trick of the Dark returns to the lesbian crime fiction sub-genre but with a brand new lesbian sleuth- Charlie Flint. Apparently McDermid decided to make her first lesbian sleuth a journalist because her own background in journalism gave her the insight into how someone of that profession would go about investigating a crime. In a similar vein, Charlie Flint is not a private eye or police detective but a clinical psychiatrist, giving the crime solving narrative a more organic feel, as opposed to the heavy forensic and technical jargon that is so popular in crime fiction these days.

As Trick of the Dark begins, Charlie Flint has been suspended from her job after giving evidence in a court case that resulted in a murderer walking free to kill again. Not only is she starting to question herself professionally but a flirtatious academic has Charlie questioning her seven-year relationship with Maria. A mysterious package containing newspaper clippings about a murder involving a university acquaintance draws her back to her old stomping ground, Oxford University. Also McDermid’s alma mater- at the age of 16 she was one of the youngest students ever accepted into the university.

As Charlie investigates the murder, one of the prime suspects emerges as Jay Macallan Stewart- a power lesbian and memoir writer with a dotcom fortune. Macallan Stewart is a fascinating but not immediately likeable character and most of the lesbian characters have some kind of dark secret or emotional turmoil, which in my opinion makes them all the more believable.

While some gay and lesbian authors deliberately steer away from negative portrayals of LGBT characters, McDermid is not afraid to humanise them by giving them less than saintly personalities. In fact she drew criticism from some LGBT readers with her inclusion of a gay sexual predator in her 2004 novel, The Torment of Others. Her response was that, ‘There’s good and bad in every community. To pretend otherwise only gives ammunition to your enemies.’

A lot has changed in the publishing world since Report For Murder was released by a small feminist publishing house in 1987. Lindsay Gordon was the UK’s first openly lesbian detective character and the series of books she appeared in were cult hits in a niche market, however McDermid felt she would ‘never make a living out of lesbian crime fiction’.

‘Back then, the notion that a commercial house would publish a novel that featured a lesbian protagonist was laughable,’ said McDermid in a recent article for The Independent. ‘I knew that I’d never make a living as a writer if I stuck to writing about Lindsay.’

Even in the 1990’s and as recently as 2003 McDermid encountered reluctance from publishers in regards to her lesbian themed work. However a very noticeable shift in the last seven years has meant that Trick of the Dark, which McDermid claims to be one of her ‘most lesbian’ books, hardly raised an eyebrow with her publisher and has been marketed in exactly the same way as any other new release.

‘I like to think that’s something to do with the way I write about lesbians,’ said McDermid.

‘I don’t write novels that indulge in special pleading or political point-scoring. I don’t set out to hammer home a message or to titillate. And I’m not a separatist. I spend most of my life in a small village where my wife and I are the only out lesbians, but we are as much a part of the community as anyone else, and that’s how I write about my gay characters. They’re not weirdos or freaks – well, not unless the plot demands it. They’re integrated members of society whose stories are no more or less interesting or important than anyone else’s.’

Trick of the Dark is full of intrigue and fascinating characters that will have you ruminating long after you’ve read the last page. Maybe, if we’re very lucky, Charlie Flint will make an appearance in a second novel sometime in the future, maybe even her own series…

Amy Henderson