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A Field of Darkness    by Cornelia Read order for
Field of Darkness
by Cornelia Read
Order:  USA  Can
Mysterious Press, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

A Field of Darkness introduces a tough talking, wisecracking PI in the old style. But wait ... she's also a vulnerable young woman, brought up in a setting that combined luxury and emotional poverty. Ex-debutante Madeline Dare comes from old money, but is now a poor relation and misses some of the trappings of her past. She's happily (even ecstatically) married to Dean. Though they live in Syracuse where Maddie writes fluff pieces for the local paper, Dean's away most of the time, working on the railroads and testing an (automated railgrinder) invention that he hopes will make their fortune.

Visiting her in-laws with Dean, Madeline stumbles upon a connection (army dog tags) between the nineteen year old unsolved murders of two unidentified young women (dubbed the Rose Girls for the flowers with which the killer carefully decorated the death scene) and her favorite cousin, Lapthorne Townsend. He is the only member of her large extended family who was kind to her as a child, and Maddie has always found him very attractive. However, the girls were last seen in the company of two soldiers at the New York State Fair; could the kind and gentle Lappy possibly have been involved? Reluctant to turn her newfound evidence over to the police, and very much against Dean's wishes, Maddie starts to investigate.

She meets many colorful characters - an engaging Jewish livestock auctioneer named Izzy who was taught, on the way to a Nazi death camp, by a gypsy to read faces; a frightened old junkie silhouettist with a secret; and veteran ex-cop bartender Kenny whom she and Dean have befriended. Maddie's best friend Ellis (who calls her Madwoman) shows up and joins in the fun. They meet a corrupt ex-cop who seems to be involved, and find evidence that cousin Lapthorne was somewhere else at the time of the killing. Which is just as well as romance blossoms between Lappy and Ellis. As Madeline gradually acquires more information about the Rose Girls and their terrible end, people connected to the case are butchered and laid out - just as the two young women were - in imitation of scenes from old children's books.

Cornelia Read makes a remarkable debut with A Field of Darkness, whose thrilling denouement surprised me, something I find rare these days. She delivers a strong, well-developed mystery, with engagingly quirky characters, and plenty of conflict to maintain readers' interest. But the biggest draw is conflicted heroine Madeline who regularly throws away lines like 'I'm an ideal candidate for a caffeine I.V.' or 'By Monday night I was wallowing in the mood pool's deep end.' She's much too good a character to disappear after only one book!

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