20 June 2024

Review: A FIELD OF DARKNESS, Cornelia Read

  • this edition supplied by my local library
  • first published in USA 2006
  • ISBN 9781741751574
  • 311 pages
  • debut novel
  • Awards
    2007 Anthony Award for Best First Novel (nominee)
    2007 Barry Award for Best First Novel (nominee)
    2007 Edgar Award for Best First Novel (nominee)
    2007 Macavity Award for Best First Novel (nominee)

Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

Madeline Dare, a tough-talking, shotgun-toting ex-debutante, is not your average detective. Then again, not much about her life is what she expected. Born of old money into high society, she married into a Syracuse farming family and a bottom-of-the-food-chain job writing puff pieces for the local newspaper. Her emotional barometer these days ranges from dry irony to whining exasperation.

Then Madeline discovers mysterious circumstances linking her favorite cousin to a twenty-year-old murder case, and suddenly her roots are a serious matter again--deadly serious. Unwilling to turn her evidence over to the authorities before figuring some things out herself, she will embark on an ill-prepared and harrowing investigation into the real dark side of her world.

... Madeline Dare would be the first to tell you her money is so old there's none left. A former socialite from an aristocratic family in decline, Maddie is a tough-talking, would-be journalist exiled to the rust belt of upstate New York. Her prospects for changing her dreary lifestyle seem dim--until a set of dog tags found at a decades-old murder site is linked to her family. Shocked into action, Maddie embarks on a search that takes her from the derelict smokestacks of Syracuse to the posh mansions of Long Island's Gold Coast. But instead of the warm refuge of home, this prodigal daughter soon uncovers dark, sinister secrets that will violently challenge everything she believes in and holds dear.

My Take

I have read this book as part of my U3A Crime Fiction Readers group. I'll make no bones about it - I struggled, even considered abandoning it half way through - most unlike me. I'm now wondering what the rest of our group are going to say about it.

So part of my review is about why I had such a struggle.

The setting is Syracuse, New York State, 1988.

For me the book has 3 main themes:

  • what has happened to "old money" families in the United States. Madeline Dare's family is from old money, Long Island aristocracy, money made originally by unscrupulous means, land acquired by killing off the original occupants. Some of Maddy's extended family, like her cousin Lapthorne still have money and flaunt it, while Maddie's own family have sold off their wealth and land, so Maddie needs to work for a living. Maddie's extended family is quite dysfunctional.
  • the second theme is Maddie's own quest for satisfying work. She is a journalist at a Syracuse newspaper but basically writes "puff" pieces and would much rather get her teeth into much more serious stuff. Maddie is married and her husband Dean is away a lot, mainly in Canada where he is working on a railway contract
  • The third theme is a murder case, the central plot of the novel. Dean's father is a farmer and has recently discovered some dogtags in a field when he has ploughed it. The dogtags have been there for nearly 20 years and the story is that they relate to the "Rose Girls" case of two unnamed girls murdered at the New York State Fair. There is a whiff of police corruption attached to the case. One of the dog tags bears the name of Maddie's favourite cousin Lapthorne Townsend, golden boy of a still wealthy branch of Maddie's old-money family.
    Maddie is hooked by the idea of investigating the case and proving Lapthorne's innocence.
    The dogtags were never handed in to the police and so Lapthorne was not investigated at the time.

Ok. So I made it through the book to the end, and eventually found out the whole story.

So what was my problem?

I guess it was that I am an Australian reader with a smattering of American history knowledge, to be honest a bit more than most Australian readers.

I guess I felt that the author was trying to teach me a lot about what had happened to "old money" in the original 13 colonies. There were lots of references to American history, some fairly oblique, but also not really essential to the story. I thought there were some references that American readers would not "get". e.g. the reference to the "second gun on the grassy knoll". (the assassination of JFK, but its relevance here?}

Neither did I particularly warm to most of the characters, although I guess those who would crop up again in later books in this series, like Maddie's husband Dean are probably better fleshed out.

My rating: 4.3

Other reviews you might like to read- two entirely different reactions

About the author

Cornelia Read is the author of "Valley of Ashes", "Invisible Boy", and "The Crazy School". Read's first novel, "A Field of Darkness", was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. She lives in Berkeley, California.

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