A FIELD OF DARKNESS starts, quite literally, like a house afire. The house that catches on fire --- burned down for the insurance money --- is in Syracuse. So is heroine Madeline Dare, and the house may be in better shape. Madeline is 25, a refugee from the Old Money, Eastern Socially Attractive world of the Hamptons and the Great Camps of the Adirondacks. (Perhaps the most cutting insult Madeline gets in the course of the book is a reminder from a frosty relative that she won't be allowed to buy back her parents' share in the family campground.)
So instead of summers by the lake replete with Southside cocktails (gin, lemon and syrup with a mint garnish) and winters spent indoors contemplating Winslow Homer originals and the crimes of one's forefathers, Madeline ends up in upstate New York, working for the local paper, writing about "winter drinks," green bean casserole recipes, and the wonders of the midway at the 1988 New York State Fair. You hear about culture shock, as poor Madeline experiences cultural cardiac arrest.
But Madeline (who reminds us that Syracuse is in the top four in the country in Cool Whip consumption) is not the first of her tribe to make the trip upstate from the Hamptons; her cousin Lapthorne was there years before, as a soldier at Camp Drum in the late sixties. He was there, as it turns out, at the same time as the famous murder of the unnamed, enigmatic "Rose Girls," left stark and alone in a cornfield garlanded in red and white flowers. And it turns out that one of Madeline's rustic in-laws has found Lapthorne's dog tags while plowing that very field.
That's the mystery at the center of A FIELD OF DARKNESS, and it has a lot to recommend --- tragedy, beauty, the relentless passage of time, the complete lack of motive for the killings. Madeline, wisely, doesn't want any part of it. But her curiosity overcomes her (understandable) reluctance, and before too long she's poring over the old photographs of the crime scene in the newspaper morgue, interviewing witnesses and getting in over her head. In many ways, Madeline is the worst possible detective for this --- or any other --- case. She's nervous and depressive, with a knack for saying precisely the wrong thing to the wrong person. But her great gift is her undeniable talent for observation, which gets more acute when she's in a horrible environment or situation.
Of course, it's a talent that rightly belongs to author Cornelia Read, and in her first novel she shows herself to be a sharp, caustic observer of crime scenes and purely social disasters. Read has an unerring eye for the false and the ridiculous, and both the barrooms of upstate New York and the drawing rooms of Long Island make for rich, ripe targets. She switches between them with aplomb, capable of describing both Low Rent entertainments (where a character named "Vomit Girl" makes a memorable appearance) as well as those of High Society (one key character enters a scene aboard his yacht). In between, Read populates her tale with memorable, quirky supporting characters, including a frightened silhouette artist, a cattle auctioneer with a fortunetelling sideline, and Jerry Lee Lewis as his own bad self.
A FIELD OF DARKNESS is sheer joy, complete with cutting prose and gleefully off-kilter pop culture references. Read pulls off the difficult job of combining perfectly timed comic situations and observations with a murder mystery that's deeply weird and disturbing. She writes with assurance, flash, and more than her fair share of talent. Just like her book, Cornelia Read is starting out her career as a novelist like a house afire.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on July 11, 2007