Monday, November 8, 2010

In the Spotlight: Deborah Crombie's In a Dark House

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Many of the most popular crime fiction series are police procedurals that follow the sleuth or sleuths over a period of time. Deborah Crombie is the author of such a series; her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series is both popular and well-regarded, so it made sense to include it in this feature. Let’s take a closer look at Crombie’s In a Dark House, the 10th in her series.

As the novel begins, a group of London firefighters is called to the scene of a fire at a Southwark warehouse owned by MP Michael Yarwood. Two things make this particular fire a very delicate matter. One is that Yarwood is a vocal member of the Labour party, and it might look quite awkward if it comes out that he’s also a property developer. The other is that that the firefighters have found the body of an unidentified woman in the warehouse. So Superintendent Duncan Kincaid is called in to investigate the matter. Meanwhile, Kincaid’s lover and former partner Gemma James gets a call from the Reverend Winnie Montfort, sister-in-law of Kincaid’s cousin, who’s concerned about one of her congregants, Fanny Liu. Fanny’s flat-mate Elaine Holland has disappeared, leaving no word. Winnie asks Gemma to help Fanny to find Elaine. Gemma agrees to ask a few questions. Soon, her search for the missing Elaine Holland is tied up with Kincaid’s investigation. It turns out that the woman who died in the warehouse could be any one of four missing women, one of whom is Elaine Holland.

Kincaid and James begin to look into the lives of the four women who seem to have disappeared. Besides Elaine Holland, there’s Laura Novak, who works nights at Guy’s Hospital. Her ten-year-old daughter Harriet seems to have disappeared, too. There’s also Chloe Yarwood, the daughter of the warehouse’s owner. And then there’s a mysterious woman named Beth, with whom Laura’s husband Tony has been having an affair. As the investigation goes on, there’s another fire. And then another. Now it seems that a serial arsonist is at work, too. In the end, Kincaid and James slowly discover how the disappearances are related to each other and how they are all related to the warehouse fire.

There are several elements woven throughout this novel that tie it together. One of them is the effect of the past on the present. For example, firefighter Rose Kearny, who’s present at the fires, discovers an important connection among them that has to do with the past. Once she makes that connection, she shares her suspicions with Kincaid, although there’s pressure on her not to. Kincaid looks into Rose’s theory and finds that she’s exactly right; the fires have everything to do with the past.

Past events are also related to some of the disappearances that Kincaid and James investigate. The more they find out about each woman’s background, the more they see how the women’s pasts have affected them. In two cases, the past turns out to be integral to the disappearance.

We even see the past’s effect on the present in Kincaid and James’ personal lives. For example, we get a look at Kincaid’s past when he finds out that his son Kit’s maternal grandmother Eugenia Potts is suing for custody of Kit. As Kincaid, James and Kit prepare for the custody hearing, we learn about Kit’s biological mother, her relationship with Kincaid, and how it was that Kit came to be living with Kincaid and James. We also learn that James is dealing with grief over a miscarriage she’s had; this past event plays an important role in the relationship she has with Kincaid.

This situation with Kit reflects another important element in this novel: the weaving together of Kincaid and James’ personal lives and professional lives, and the way they balance the demands of both worlds. Throughout the novel, we see not them not only as professionals “on the job,” but also as a couple with family issues. For example, when Kincaid finds out that the Southwark fire involves a body, he calls Gemma to let her know:

“‘I wasn’t expecting to hear from you until later today. Don’t tell me you’re off early’ [James]

‘No, sorry love. Something came up. Special request from the guv’nor. It’s a fire in Southwark with a possible homicide. I’ll fill you in on the details later.’…[Kincaid]

‘You’ll be tied up for the weekend, at least. Kit will be disappointed.’

‘Go to the market without me. It’s better than postponing.’

‘And tonight?’

It was only then that he remembered that they’d had plans to take Gemma’s friend Erika out for a meal. ‘Oh, bugger. You’d better cancel, at least on my part.’… ‘Maybe we can reschedule for next weekend.’

‘Right, look, I’ve got to dash,” Gemma said abruptly. ‘Ring me when you can.’”

Both Kincaid and James struggle to balance their work lives and home lives as well as make time for each other. This very real conflict between the demands of the job and the demands of home life is a sub-plot that appears throughout the novel. Since both Kincaid and James are detectives, each has empathy for the conflicts the other faces. That doesn’t prevent tension between them, though. This weaving together of home and personal life also serves to develop both characters.

Another element in this novel is the somewhat non-linear plot. Many of the threads of the story are related, so the novel is cohesive, but it doesn’t follow just one simple plot line. There are the four disappearances, each of which occurs for a slightly different reason. There are the fires, which are related, but not in a linear, direct way. There is also the sub-plot about the fight for custody of Kit. In this way, the novel reflects real police work. Detectives frequently work on more than one case at the same time. Some of those cases are related, and some may not be. Also, real-life detectives have the same struggle to balance home and work life as Kincaid and James do.

Since In a Dark House is a police procedural, the day-to-day work that the police do is also an important element in this novel. We follow along as the police work together to gather evidence and make sense of it. One interesting aspect of this element is that we see what happens when different agencies have to work together to solve a case. In this novel, the fire department works with the local constabulary. Scotland Yard is also involved. So we get a sense not only of the work the police do, but also of the politics and diplomacy that come into play when different agencies have to team up.

Finally, there is the element of the city itself. London is the context for this novel, and several parts of the city are described in detail. For instance, here’s a description of the area where Winnie Montfort lives:

“They were neat as dolls’ houses, thought Gemma as she studied the two-storied terraces lining Ufford Street. The houses looked cheerful even on such a gray day, the red-tiled roofs steeply peaked, the gables white, the narrow front doors a glossy black. Most of the houses, she noticed, sported flowered number plaques and hanging baskets. A black iron fence ran the length of the terrace, separating tiny front gardens from the street. A glance towards the end of the street revealed a massive gray brick warehouse and, looming above it, the unexpected silhouette of the Millennium Wheel.”

The bonds between past and present and between personal and professional lives tie together the different threads in this novel. So does the character development and the important element of police work. And all of it plays out against the backdrop of London. But what’s your view? Have you read In a Dark House? If you have, what elements did you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 15 November/Tuesday 16 November – The Fourth Side of the Triangle – Ellery Queen

Monday 22 November/Tuesday 23 November – Murder at the Kennedy Center – Margaret Truman

Monday 29 November/Tuesday 30 November – The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins


  1. Thanks for this spotlight, Margot! Deborah Crombie is one of my favorites and this reminds me to reread this great book. I love the subplot of the relationship between Duncan and Gemma as well as the mystery itself. :)

  2. Elizabeth - I'm so glad you enjoyed this spotlight :-). And no need to thank me; I like Deborah Crombie's work quite a lot, and the relationship between Duncan and Gemma really is an interesting sub-plot here, as it is in her other novels. This is one of her good 'uns.

  3. First, I visited the links at the top of your page and loved watching you read from your book. That's so cool. I would do the same thing but I hate how I look on camera.

    Second, I want to do your workshop for $10 but those are the exact days I'm travelling to Canada. I will try to make your next one though.

    Third, I've decided to try and write a 50 word story for your blog. I'll try.

    Now, on to one of my favorite series. I'm currently reading: Dreaming of the Bones.

    I love the love angle in the novels and I totally agree with the you about them trying to find a balance. Being single parents and cops are not easy. Often the job outweighs parenting and the parent feels a lot of guilt.

    I haven't read this one because I'm trying to read them in order but now I can't wait to get there.


  4. Clarissa - Thanks so much for the kind words about my readings. I don't like the way I look on camera at all, either, but I thought it would be a good way to share my writing. I'm glad you enjoyed it...

    And thanks (Wow! I'm blushing here) for your interest in my workshop. It is at a really busy time of year; I'd sure love to "see" you in the next one if you're free. You'd add so much to the group.

    And I'm so happy you're planning to try to do a contribution for Fifty Words to Kill Your Victim. I'll bet your story will be terrific.

    Now, to the book... You are right that the struggle to balance work and home is especially difficult if one's a cop, and a single parent at that. I think Crombie does a terrific job of showing that without getting melodramatic. I think you'll like this one (and Now May You Weep, which comes directly before it). Just four more books for you.... ;-). You're wise, I think, to read them in order, as I think one gets a much better picture of both sleuths that way.

  5. I love Duncan and Gemma! In fact, my first post was a Deborah Crombie review. I definitely think people should read them in order -- not they can't stand alone, but the stories are more meaningful when you see them as part of a larger narrative. In that sense, there are subplots to the subplots!

  6. Another great spotlight. I haven't read this book but you've peaked my interest in it. I like the way all the various aspects interweave to make subplots but all tie together either directly or indirectly. Always enjoy learning more about the featured books.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Karen - I like Duncan and Gemma, too! You have a point about reading the stories in order, too. The story of Gemma and Duncan's unfolding relationship really is a story within a story, isn't it? The series really is richer if one starts at the beginning.

  8. Mason - Thank you :-). As Karen suggests, you may want to start with the first in this series, A Share in Death. That way, you get to know the characters much better - from the beginning.

    You've got a point, too: it's really interesting when there are several different plots that tie together in some way. That keeps the reader's interest in all of the threads of the story.

  9. Aha, another author I've never read. Margot, I think you're personally responsible for doubling the size of my TBR list.

  10. Patricia - Ah, you've figured out my evil plot ;-)! *Evil laugh* Hee hee hee

  11. Margot, your spotlight section was a great idea.
    Thanks for your inputs. They are all really worthwhile.

  12. José Ignacio - Thanks very much for your kind words :-). I'm glad you enjoy this feature.

    qse85213 - Thank you :-)

  13. This is another addition to the TBR list for me. Your post on "The Breaker" forced me to read that book and consequently almost every novel that Minette Walters has written. Looks like this one too will go 'the breaker way'!:)

    And I can't thank you enough for adding "The Moonstone"!


  14. Amey - I'm so glad you enjoyed The Breaker. Minette Walters is such a talented writer, isn't she? I'm very happy you've enjoyed her work. And I think you will like Deborah Crombie, too. I do suggest you start with her first Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James novel. That way, you'll be able to follow their story better. Hope you'll enjoy it!

    And it's my pleasure to add The Moonstone. It is a classic in crime fiction, and certainly deserves to be in the spotlight :-).

  15. I am surprised I have never heard of this author and this mystery set in Southwark just up the road from my old home in Camberwell. Another one for the TBR mountain.

    The name Michael Yarwood made me smile because he was a famous TV impressionist and comedian in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s.

  16. Norman - I didn't know that about Michael Yarwood. I really should broaden my comic horizons... I also didn't know how close you lived to Southwark. Actually, I think the setting is quite well-depicted, so when you get to this one, you should find the descriptions quite familiar.

  17. That is a great review/post, Margot. I find it fascinating as I did not think the book was very good (I enjoyed the first few in this series but after this one and the one set in Scotland I gave up on them). Even though the book was not to my taste, I so much enjoyed reading your analysis of it.

    I vaguely remember Mike Yarwood, too!

  18. Maxine - It's interesting, isn't it, that books strike people so differently? I've found that about a lot of series I read, including this one. That's one thing I absolutely love about crime fiction; there is just so much out there that I think just about anyone can find an author or book that suits her or his taste.

    I'm glad you enjoyed reading this analysis, even though the book wasn't one you particularly liked.

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