March 18, 2007

BOOKS: A Field of Darkness, Cornelia Read (2006)

As recently as two generations ago, Madeline Dare's family was among the Long Island elite. But the family has, to varying degrees, fallen upon hard times. Some of Madeline's uncles and aunts still live in Oyster Bay, clinging to the lifestyle they grew up with; Madeline's own branch of the family has become, in her words, garbage blanc. She's living in Syracuse now, with a genius inventor husband whose job takes him away from home more often than they'd like. She writes fluffy features for the local newspaper, and is generally dissatisfied with her boring life.

That changes when her father-in-law tells her about a famous unsolved double murder from 20 years ago, and shows her the dog tags that were found at the scene. Much to Madeline's surprise, the tags belong to her cousin Lapthorne -- yes, Lapthorne -- one of the few members of her family whom Madeline genuinely likes. What's a bored young writer to do but investigate?

This is Read's first novel, and it's very good. The writing is lively and funny, and Madeline has a terrific sense of humor about her own quirks and foibles. The contrast between the pretensions of her relatives and the reality of their current financial state is sharply drawn. The supporting cast of sidekicks, relatives, and suspects -- not mutually exclusive categories -- are vivid characters, and the mystery plays out fairly (though the attempt to direct our attention away from one particular suspect is a bit too obvious, I think).

I don't know if Madeline is intended to be a series character, or if Read plans to write stand-alones; either way, I look forward to her next book.

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