Valley of Ashes
Your life changes when you have kids. Everybody knows that at some level, but you don’t appreciate it until you experience it. I could give you 20 examples without thinking too hard. Take (and this is just an example, mind you) clutter. I used to be a slob when I was a bachelor, if “slob” is the right word. I lived in filth and disarray. But even the nastiest bachelor pad can’t begin to compare with the mess and havoc that two nine-month-olds can create in an hour and a half.
I am not saying that the level of clutter in my life has changed all that much. But my attitude about it has. The man who used to let pizza boxes molder on the floor for days on end is now perfectly capable of lecturing a three-year-old on the value of putting up her toys. When you have kids, your focus changes, and then your priorities change, and then your values change. It’s a change that happens when you’re busy dealing with the other changes in your life, and you might not notice it when it happens, but it happens.
"VALLEY OF ASHES is a more than worthy continuation of the series, and Read’s potent, lacerating wit is as on-point as ever."
That’s what’s happened to Madeline Dare in VALLEY OF ASHES, and it impacts the story more than you might think. The novel begins with the intrepid ex-socialite detective shortly after the birth of twins, wallowing in the domestic mire in the whole-grain organic granola precincts of Boulder, Colorado, circa 1995. Her husband’s job has taken her West, but it also involves a lot of travel and long hours, leaving Madeline mostly alone to fend for herself and her children.
There is a good portion of VALLEY OF ASHES that focuses on the travails of parenting, and if it seems as though Madeline sinks a little bit into the depths of self-pity, she is fully entitled to do so. Cornelia Read’s vivacious prose carries the reader along past the undercurrent of fatigue and desperation that threatens to pull Madeline down.
Madeline does manage to escape her domestic situation somewhat, as she finds a job writing restaurant reviews for a local alternative paper. It is not too long before she expands her role to the point where she starts poking around crime scenes (leaving her twins in the car at an arson site in one memorable mishap). Someone is burning buildings, and building better and more dangerous fires, and Madeline becomes involved in the effort to capture the arsonist.
Read handles the mystery aspect of the story deftly, explaining the dynamics of arson and leavening the story with comic riffs on the difficulty of parenting young children and the odd folkways of Boulder. But the nature of the hunt for the arsonist doesn’t provide much in the way of conflict, so Read supplements the narrative with a crackling marital conflict.
This isn’t a terrible idea, mind you, but it requires something of a character shift from what we’ve seen from Madeline’s husband Dean, who has been a generally supportive (if often distant, or altogether absent) spouse in previous novels in the series. Here, we see that Dean is given to bursts of outrage over minor problems like housecleaning. This is a bit out of character, but it’s not outside the bounds of possibility; having small children in the house can lead to all sorts of marital strains.
What’s problematic about all of this is not that Dean acts boorishly, but that Madeline doesn’t stand up for herself. That’s not what readers have come to expect from her character. In previous books, Madeline is brave, intrepid and tough-minded, and here (at least in some instances) she is allowing herself to be treated as a doormat. Read is able to explain this and rationalize it a little, but it’s still somewhat of a surprise to see Madeline act so passively.
There is a reason for all of this, and the reveal of a horrifying secret, and a satisfying, shattering climax as Madeline gets her opportunity to do some damage to the dark forces that, unbeknownst to her, are arrayed against her. VALLEY OF ASHES is a more than worthy continuation of the series, and Read’s potent, lacerating wit is as on-point as ever. If Madeline Dare is a little off her game in this installment, it is not as though she doesn’t have an excellent reason.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on November 9, 2012