The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid

Val McDermid is, of course, a remarkably prolific and exceptionally popular crime writer, creator of Wire In The Blood, and I always find her likeable and interesting when I see or hear her on TV and radio. Until now, though, I hadn't read any of her books.

The Vanishing Point is a standalone novel which begins with a woman, Steph, helplessly watching her child being abducted at an American airport while she is being detained by security. In order for the authorities to build a picture of whomever might have taken Jimmy, it's necessary for Steph to explain the complicated backstory that led up to her travelling to the States with the boy in the first place.

It's this backstory that forms the bulk of the narrative of The Vanishing Point, interspersed with briefer sections in which Jimmy's suspected kidnapper is pursued. We soon learn that Steph is a ghost-writer of celebrity biographies, and that she had become a friend and confidante of one of her clients, a now deceased reality TV star called Scarlett Higgins. Also part of Scarlett's carefully chosen inner circle are her former husband, her cousin Leanne and her charming agent George, along with her Romanian housekeeper and latterly, her surgeon. Meanwhile, Steph's own partner is becoming increasingly jealous of the time Steph spends at Scarlett's Essex mansion.

Scarlett herself is the focal point of the story, just as she has a knack of making sure everything revolves around her in real life. McDermid makes a point of portraying Scarlett not as a vacuous bimbo but as a sharp, shrewd young woman with a carefully orchestrated persona - and indeed, if Scarlett really were the loud-mouthed dumb blonde she appears to be on television, her friendship with Steph would be implausible. However, the character of Scarlett draws so heavily from real-life reality TV celebrities - she's essentially Jade Goody with a touch of Katie Price - that I felt she sometimes tipped over into parody, and detracted from the credibility of the story overall.

There's no question that Val McDermid is an expert at weaving intrigue into a well-constructed story; I doubt many readers would find it hard to keep turning the pages of The Vanishing Point. She's also astutely observant on the nature of celebrity and on certain types of dysfunctional relationships. But I guessed quite early on roughly how the book would end, and ultimately, the plot would not be out of place in a series of Footballers' Wives, such is the heightened camp of certain elements of it and the sheer implausibility of the events it describes. It lacks depth and darkness, and it's hard to feel quite the level of tension which I'd look for in a thriller when it's so over-the-top. 

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