Book review: A Darker Domain

A DARKER DOMAIN Val McDermid HarperCollins, £17.99

GOING to the last few pages to find out how a book ends before turning to the beginning is not a crime, only a habit I've tried to break. But revealing how the strands of a crime fiction novel finally weave together probably tops any book-reviewing charge sheet. So time to play by the unwritten rules and start at page one with no idea of the outcome.

The restraint was well worth it. The achievement of the best modern writers of crime fiction – and former journalist Val McDermid is one – is not only to devise and solve crimes, but to ground them as firmly and realistically as they do.

They draw the reader into the world they create, and A Darker Domain is solidly Fife, more specifically the county's former coal mining heartland with its tribal traditions and sense of community.

That is where McDermid grew up and it shows. She reveals how well she knows Tuscany, Edinburgh and Nottingham as the story moves back and forward in time over almost 30 years. But Fife is where the action springs from.

The story starts in June 2007 with a young mother reporting a missing person. The twist for Detective Inspector Karen Pirie, of Fife's finest – in charge of that latest fashion in crime fiction, "cold cases" – is that Mick Prentice has been missing, as far as his wife Jenny and daughter Misha are concerned, since the miners' strike of 1984.

He was known until then as a strong union man, so his wife, daughter and neighbours are devastated to find that he has apparently turned scab and travelled, without saying goodbye, to the Nottingham coalfield with five others to get work.

Occasional envelopes of used notes over the next few years confirm their view. No attempt is made to find him in Nottingham. He's a dead man to the pit village. Now Misha's young son needs a bone marrow transplant and her father is his last chance.

And while DI Pirie is bending the rules to find Mick Prentice, what about the kidnapping of the daughter and grandson of Scotland's third richest, and most media-shy, unpleasant man, Broderick Maclennan Grant, in 1984?

A ransom demand went wrong and in an exchange of shots between police and kidnappers on a Fife beach, Grant's daughter died and the kidnappers escaped by boat, taking his six-month-old grandson with them.

Who were the kidnappers? Can the boy still be found? What has this to do with Bel Richmond, an investigative journalist who has found an artistic poster in a deserted Tuscan villa, and her belief that it will lead to fame and, incidentally, fortune?

Holding all this, and a cast of dozens, together is DI Pirie. She knows herself as a hardened, hard-working detective, promoted through efforts that included proving her own assistant chief constable a triple murderer while she worries about being "a dumpy, wee fat woman crammed into a Marks and Spencer suit".

Alongside is her number two, lean and dark Detective Sergeant Phil Parhatka. As they get through the leg work, interspersed with flashes of inspiration, avoiding contact with their boss "The Macaroon" Lees as much as possible, Parhatka favours Irn-Bru and Vimto, Pirie "only has to look at a Coke to put on inches", while there is a description of them sharing a bacon roll that will have readers heading for the fridge.

The two work well together, although tensions of another kind develop between them, one more of the many strands McDermid teases along so expertly.

She is not only excellent on place, but on fashion, politics, technology, journalism, medicine and human frailty. My problem with crime fiction, from Sherlock Holmes onward, is that no matter how well written, and this book is, no matter how much detail is realistic, and it is, no matter how many eye-catching phrases – "relationships split like a log under an axe" and "twisting the Rubik's cube of what she knew" – the solutions are too neat.

But they have to be. Real life has loose ends while we expect crime fiction to provide answers. Val McDermid does that superbly. That's why millions of us keep turning the pages.