It is 2006: the year of the Turin Winter Olympics, creation of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) in Great Britain, beginning of the construction of the Freedom Tower in New York City, and a devastating terrorist attack in Mumbai, India.
This is the year A Field of Darkness, itself a throwback story with a cold case at its center, was born into. The first and, arguably, the best of Cornelia Read’s novel series, the book is a meticulously written indictment of the corruption at the center of America’s former landed gentry, the old money built on the backs of immigrant labor and the Adirondack Mountains at the turn of last century.
Set in 1988 Syracuse, New York, the novel opens from the point of view of Madeline Dare, a local-news “fluff” reporter who’s far from the world of social graces and dinner parties she grew up in. It’s to this world she returns when evidence from a 19-year-old unsolved double murder turns up in her father-in-law’s hand, found in the dirt of his farm field. Soon Madeline, taking on the mantle of investigative reporter, finds herself in over her head as she tries to clear her own cousin’s name attached to the murder of the “Rose Girls.”
Each of the book’s well-drawn characters has their own streaks of dark and light, so that as in life, you can never completely hate or completely love them; even the bit-part Nazi gardener grieves a deeply personal loss, and even the heroine allows her own biases to blind her. As Read herself notes, quoting Solzhenitsyn:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Indeed, these are characters you come to care about, so that it hurts when they hurt… or die.
The book’s excellent pacing and flow include natural conversations that, as in real life, steer back to the main point just as they’re about to wander. Madeline’s first interview with her source Archie Sembles is an especially poignant exercise in dialogue written from two completely different goals, leading to a tragic misunderstanding.
Indeed, it’s the tiny details that often carry the greatest weight; as Read writes in her intro, “The ghosts of history are in the details, in the negative space.” But A Field of Darkness carries broader themes, too, including an important question about where the presumption of innocence can lead an investigation, and the importance of keeping an open mind no matter where the evidence leads, or how old it is.
On my shelf, this book is a late-summer read that I return to again and again.
Christa M. Miller is a writer and marketing consultant based in South Carolina. She’s been reading crime fiction since she was old enough to read, graduating quickly from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.
A fan additionally of horror, fantasy, and suspense, she writes fiction that crosses those and more lines. You can learn more at her website.