A Field of Darkness

Title: A Field of Darkness
Author: Cornelia Read
Published by: Mysterious Press, 2006

Confession time: I didn't really want to like this book. You know how it is: Darn. Young woman who started in out in Syracuse in the 80s writes a book with a cover blurb by a NEW YORK TIMES best selling author. (Why didn't I write a book?) More cover reviews: 'sassy, darkly funny, smart.' (Sure, that means the book is just a string of smart-alecky sentences. Ha.) Photo of author: Long Islandly-looking blonde with a come-hither slant to her eyebrows. (See? I knew it!)

And for the coup de grace, the opening two sentences: "There are people who can be happy anywhere. I am not one of them. When the house on the next street went up in flames for the second night in a row, I wondered again what the hell I was doing in Syracuse."

Now I *know* she's some uppity bon mot slinger and I'm NOT going to like this book.

All jealous joking aside, I was actually right on all supposition scores but one. She *is* smart-alecky, she is uppity, she does sling bon mots, and I should have written a book. But the one thing I was wrong about was the most important one: I *did* like the book.

The best thing the book has going for it is one of my favorite features of any book: it has mood and place. I don't think the place or the mood are *Syracuse*, but in a way, the book was all the better for that. Once I realized she really didn't have the tone of my town, I stopped worrying about it and simply went along for the ride, enjoying the place she *did* create: the hot summer nights, the grimy, hayseedy streets, and the cartoonish characters she worked with.

In fact, she might have been writing about Syracuse as it was in, say, the 60s, but not the Syracuse of the book's purported timeframe -the late 80s. By then, most folks weren't referring to Syracuse as "down-city," and Wegman's merchandising was not a clownish "international cheese" bar featuring two kinds of imported French cheese. And yes, you *could* get decent tabouleh. (And we even knew what it was!!!)

The action of the book takes place in three locales: Syracuse, Long Island's Oyster Bay area, and the Great Camps of the Adirondacks. The house burning at the beginning is a red herring, or some sort of herring, as it is completely inconsequential to the story.

Still, the writer began to win me over almost immediately as she described the aftermath of the late-night firesale conflagration: "We stood mesmerized until the trucks left, then stumbled home with that aftermath smell of bucket-doused campfire caught in our teeth. Insult to injury."
Or: "There were still traces of those glory days (of Syracuse) if you knew where to look, things like our radiator covers, made of the steel sheets from which Remington and Smith-Corona letter-key stems had been punched, leaving behind a delicate herringbone tracery. The ghosts of history are in the details, in the negative spaces."

Read has a "voice," unique, and interesting, and readable.

The story is complex, intriguing and a little bit far-fetched. A young journalist marries an up-stater and moves (or is sentenced to, if you believe the main character) to Syracuse, where she goes to work for a weekly independent journal, staffed by an irascible, nasty, punitive managing editor; a hippie "speak truth to power" reporter who rolls his own (both kinds); and a meek, strange, unattractive though highly talented photographer (who ends up killing himself!).

The weekly is supposed to be THE NEW TIMES (for which paper Read actually worked at the time); the editor Mike Greenstein; the reporter Walt Shepperd; the photog a blend of a couple of characters, one of them present day photographer Mike Davis. (I say "supposed" to be, because I found precious few, though pointed, resemblances between the fictional characters and the real people. Read was clearly not happy in Syracuse!)

On a visit to her in-law's farm (where one character actually says, "Real sorry. Keeping forgetting your wife's one o' them Jew-lovers."), we learn about a murder that took place in the vicinity some 19 years ago. Two unknown young women, last seen at the State Fair in the company of two soldiers from Fort Drum, turn up dead, their bodies laid out with ritualistic precision on the very land that Dean's (our heroine's unnaturally sympathetic husband) family leases for farming.

Some time later, Dean's father, while plowing, turns up some dog tags. He is convinced our heroine will find the dog tags interesting - given that she is a journalist - and he presents them to her for examination.

Will wonders never cease! (This is the far-fetched part...) The dog tags bear the name of none other than Madelaine's (the heroine) cousin, Lapthorne Townsend! We can be sure it's her cousin as there are precious few Lapthorne Townsends in the world.

Against the better judgment of her knightly husband, Maddie (aka Bunny to her near and dear), decides, rather than tell what she knows to the police, she will see if she can exonerate Lappy, thereby removing the necessity of digging up old trouble.

Her investigations lead Maddie from a silhouette artist who plys his trade at the State Fair, to an avuncular German agricultural auctioneer, to her family's eccentric bosom in the "old money" section of Long Island, and finally, to the Great Camps of the Adirondacks, where the denouement is enacted.

And as she investigates, more people die. Each time, the victim is laid out in fairy tale fashion, starting with the two girls killed in 1969, whose heads - one blonde and one brunette - are wreathed in red and white flowers (denoting Snow White and Rose Red). The murders are grisly and disturbing, and while we catch to who the killer is several chapters before the heroine, the author uses that to her advantage, keeping the reader turning the pages rapidly with that "don't go in the basement" sensation.

The story is peppered with very specific references to Syracuse, though, as mentioned before, it is not an accurate portrayal of Syracuse in the 80s - at least not the Syracuse a hip young person would have known. She does capture photographic flashes of detail that will strike a chord: her farm-wife mother-in-law serving a Sunday supper of sliced turkey, ham and roast beef, Jell-O salad, soft Kaiser rolls, Miracle Whip, homemade sweet pickles, and bowls of chips; a visit to Sal's Birdland; the MONY towers light-code; the Kingsnake's groupies; and her low-rent apartment in the Hawley-Green Street area. But for the most part, she describes a town that existed only in her unhappy mind, complete with bad food, bad manners, and where NPR is adjudged the only cultural relief.

Moreover, she is somewhat anachronistic. At first I was not sure if her slangy phrases (the writer does, as I said, have a very pronounced "voice") were supposed to be written *today* to refer to things that happened in the past, and thus might incorporate today's slang. But she puts the phrases in the mouths of her characters, having them say such things as:
"'He must be a total babe, your cousin.'
'No, really,' she said. 'You are *so* not over this guy.'
'Dude, shut *up*.'"

Ok, call me crazy, but I do not remember talking that way in the 80s. Ok, I never talked that way. But still... dude, those are *so* speech patterns of the last five or six years, not nearly 20 years ago.

She indicates that the main character had a personal computer not only in the office, but at home. Remember, this is 1988. Personal computers were not all that common at the time.

And while her distaste for, and sense of superiority to, Syracuse come through loud and clear, other than Maddie's escape in the end to bigger and better things (if one can so deem California), the issue of *why* she hated her stint in our town so much is never resolved.

In fact, she is not a great deal more forgiving of her family's stomping ground on Long Island. Though she feels a greater kinship with their level of cultural achievement (they have big costume cocktail parties, as compared to Miracle Whip Sunday suppers down the the Farm), she portrays them as dysfunctional (her mother has a string of husbands and lovers in no particular order and of no particular use) and odd (her step-boyfriend/father is amused by puerilely answering the phone with all manner of bizarre greetings), and kind of tending towards over-bred chaos.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the escape velocity of Dean and Maddie at the end of the book is a signal of a new beginning in a way far beyond just a young couple heading out for greener pastures. The last sane and healthy bits of DNA from two otherwise moribund and played-out strains of people and places break free, link up, and form a whole new race.

A brave new world.

Dude. That is *so* cool.


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