Fresh Meat: To Dwell in Darkness by Deborah Crombie

To Dwell in Darkness by Deborah Crombie is the 16th mystery in the Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series (available September 23, 2014).

To Dwell in Darkness is a powerful story that forcefully lands the reader in a confused, smoke-filled, public arena of terror. No back story is needed to comprehend the insanity of a bomb going off at a public concert at St. Pancras International, a renovated railroad station. But like the best stories of J.D. Robb, P.D. James, and Louise Penny, knowing the cast of characters adds to the reader’s enjoyment.

Deborah Crombie conducts the interwoven strands of her 16th novel like a maestro wielding a baton. Kincaid and Gemma’s family, work colleagues, and friends, including their oldest son Kit, play a pivotal role in unraveling the twisted strands that envelop the bombing. Their contributions are integral to understanding the motivations behind the mystery of how a would-be smoke-bomb turned into a lethal weapon. There’s also time for St. Pancras Station, the place, the neighborhood that surrounds it, and its long history, to take a bow. Longtime readers will pore over the detailed, hand-crafted map of the St. Pancras world, complete with hand-drawn sketches of pubs and hospitals. As Crombie so aptly puts it, “Laura Maestro has once again brought the story to life with an enchanting endpaper map.”

Kincaid is working from Holborn station, a hulking concrete monstrosity whose “architectural design might have come straight from the Gulag.” What happened to his office at Scotland Yard? Therein lies a mystery that underpins To Dwell in Darkness. Kincaid, in the best tradition of a man fighting a fog of misinformation and silence, doesn’t know.

Returning to Scotland Yard from paternity leave in mid-February, he’d found his office empty. He’d been transferred from his longtime job as head of a homicide liaison team at the Yard to an area major-incident team based here in Holborn. It was a demotion, although he had kept his rank. There had been no warning and no explanation.

To add to Kincaid’s isolation, Chief Superintendent Childs, his immediate superior, is out of England “on a family emergency” and Doug Cullen, his detective sergeant, is recuperating from a broken ankle, at a desk job in front of a computer at the Yard. Kincaid bemoans the loss of Cullen’s “capable, nerdy presence,”

Losing a good detective sergeant – a partner with whom you spent more hours than you did with your spouse – ranked, in his opinion, close to divorce on the scale of life disruptions, and there’d been no compensating honeymoon with his new team.

Gemma, Kincaid’s wife, once his detective sergeant, has a mystery of her own to solve, a nasty brutish crime. Adding to the broth, their sons Kit and Toby rescue a cat with four starving new-born kittens. All of these elements are woven into the story but the focus of To Dwell in Darkness is on Duncan Kincaid. Perhaps it’s clichéd to say a mystery’s plot is “ripped from the headlines” but it’s unavoidable when a bombing is the catalyst. Crombie is unsparing in her description of the aftermath,

The charred body lay in the pugilist position, arms and legs drawn up in an obscene parody of a boxer. Wisps of smoke still rose from the blackened and tattered skin and clothing. Along the body, little spurts of fire ignited randomly, then winked out, like fireflies on a summer evening.

The key word – random – for as Kincaid learns when he pieces together the loose group of preservation activists that planned the bombing; the intent was never to kill with a deadly phosphorous bomb but rather to disrupt a concert with a smoke bomb. Kincaid’s investigations lead him to a group of young activists who live near King’s Cross/St. Pancras. Astute, detailed descriptions of the area capture the gulf between the gentrified and the still-struggling.

Kincaid saw a sad shop advertising ADULT DVDS and wondered what delights the videos could possibly hold that couldn’t be found on the Internet for free in five minutes.

There was a wine shop, a hostel, a Thai takeaway, and an Internet café—the last a sure sign that the area catered to the disenfranchised.

More frightening is the certainty that Kincaid’s professional and personal lives are being manipulated by forces that he does not understand. He doesn’t work with Gemma particularly, even privately, to solve the mystery of the bombing, and that is very out-of-keeping with the life they’ve built together.

Nor was he sure how much he could tell Gemma about his misgivings, because he hadn’t told her he suspected her promotion was meant as a sweetener to keep him from making trouble.

There was no reason any of that should influence his actions in this case. Except that he had the same sense of unseen things moving beneath dark waters, and it gave him that same itch between the shoulder blades.

One of the joys of a mystery is the promise of an explanation – eventually the reader knows all will be revealed and whodunit will no longer be a question. This is true of To Dwell in Darkness but in keeping with the title, and the bleak opening, not every question is answered. When the story opens, Kincaid was dispossessed, ripped from the job he did so well, and this is not entirely resolved. What’s the story with his new detective inspector Jasmine Sidana for instance? Thirty-five, single, non-fraternizing and intensely ambitious—and also, by story’s end, a reluctant admirer of Kincaid’s work ethic and intelligent—perhaps even an ally. This random description is a red herring. As always, Crombie dangles new characters that will become part of an enlarged world for Kincaid and Gemma and will be explored further in the next book (and why do we have to wait more than 12 months between books?!).

Not every itch will be scratched and satisfied at the end of To Dwell in Darkness and that is the mark of a writer at the top of her game. Readers will devour another immensely satisfying book in the continuing Kincaid/James series – and count the months until the next.

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Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

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