Written by Val McDermid — OK, it’s confession time. I haven’t read a Val McDermid novel before. However I have read plenty about the author and her work, and been told by my fellow Crime Fiction Lovers that her books are well worth it. So I was pretty excited when Little, Brown dropped me an early copy of the Tartan Noir author’s newest book, The Vanishing Point.
From what I can gather, this one isn’t quite like her Lindsay Gordon, Kate Brannigan, or Tony Hill series. There is crime here, it’s fictional, and there’s a mystery too, but the telling of this investigation is unusual. The Vanishing Point opens with Stephanie Harker and her adopted son Jimmy landing at O’Hare International in Chicago, on their way from England to California. Stephanie has pins in her leg, the result of a car accident years earlier, and sets off the metal detectors. While the dithering security prepare to search her, Jimmy waits by conveyors coming out of the x-ray machines. During the hold-up, he’s snatched by a man wearing an airport security uniform, and whisked away into the crowds.
After an altercation involving tasers, and a fractured snout for one of the security team, Stephanie finds herself talking to FBI agent Vivian McKuras about the disappeared child. They’re trying to figure out who took the five-year-old, and why. The race is on because in some child abduction cases horrible things usually happen quite soon after the kidnapping. However, so much time was wasted during the fracas, that he could be miles away. They reckon he’s been taken out of the airport via a back exit.
Jimmy is a special boy – he’s the son of reality TV star Scarlett Higgins and her husband DJ Joshu. Stephanie was the ghost writer of Scarlett’s biography, and her story goes right back to when she first met the celebrity. Scarlett’s character was undoubtedly inspired by the tragic Jade Goody – she was ‘discovered’ on a reality TV show, thrown off it for a racist rant, led a life in the glare of the paparazzi flashguns, and died prematurely of cancer. Estranged husband Joshu had also died of an overdose a year earlier. Turning her back on her rough upbringing Scarlett left little Jimmy’s care to Stephanie, rather than her drunk mother and junkie sister.
The only trouble is, rather than leaving her wealth in trust for Jimmy, Scarlett willed it to an orphanage in Romania run by her former nanny, Marina. This move leaves ghost writer Stephanie, agent George and cousin Leanne in shock. With her celebrity fragrance, TV series, several books penned by Stephanie, and other ventures, there was plenty in the Higgins coffers. Potential kidnappers include Joshu’s devout Hindu family, Leanne, a deranged fan, and Stephanie’s controlling ex-boyfriend Pete Matthews. Checking on the leads back in London is Nick Nicolaides of the Met, with whom Stephanie is in a new relationship.
Sounds complex but McDermid makes the story of Scarlett Higgins an incredibly compelling social commentary. She turns over many of the notions and prejudices commonly held about airhead slebs and we go right inside a world where agents and stars concoct weddings to get front pages; where drugs, booze and sex keep you on them; and this story even involves a lookalike double who parties in Scarlett’s place when she’s worn out. Scarlett, Joshu, Stephanie, Leanne, George – all the characters are brilliantly observed creations who behave and interact so realistically it’s almost like reading a contemporary Evelyn Waugh.
Fascinating, but the only weakness of this book is that the crime – Jimmy’s kidnapping – is forgotten throughout long periods and, as we learn all about his mother’s life, the urgency and intensity seems to slip away. About four fifths of the way through I despaired that I’d never know who’d kidnapped the boy. However right near the end McDermid slams down her crime writing fist and snaps all the plot threads together with an incredible conclusion that I certainly didn’t see coming. Maybe a cleverer reader will be able to work things out, but for me McDermid works a touch of genius in the final chapters. The Vanishing Point makes for a great read.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars