McDermid, V. L. Stranded. Hexham: Flambard, 2005.
Stranded is a collection of short stories by Val McDermid, who I previously knew better for her Scottish crime fiction than for her slightly twisted depictions of romance, which appear in at least a dozen stories in this volume. As a whole, I found this collection rather unusual: it contains the playful 'The Girl who Killed Santa Claus' and the lighthearted 'Guilt Trip,' as well as a few other tales in similarly relaxed vein. Yet what draws this collection together most clearly is McDermid's recurring use of what I might term the O. Henry conclusion. Nearly every story relies heavily upon a 'twist' at the end to upturn our earlier expectations (and, in many cases, to add a layer of gore). In some stories, this twist is predictable, as with 'Sneeze for Danger,' in which the twist would be nearly impossible to avoid. In others, such as 'The Writing on the Wall,' a story which takes place in two media: a the door of a bathroom stall and a newspaper, the concluding twist offers little satisfaction but a large dose of reality. Yet despite its occasional effectiveness, in the overall collection as presented, the repeated use of the final plot twist becomes redundant and frustrating. I would prefer to see many of these stories on their own, and ended up reading the volume in intermittent bursts. As standalone texts, 'The Consolation Blonde' is possibly my favourite short story of this collection, although (as an added caveat) this and many other pieces in Stranded rely heavily on intimate sexual descriptions (less provocative in this story than in 'Metamorphosis,' near the end of the collection) to further titillate or force emotion in the readers. As short stories, I found many of the pieces engaging, a few overly descriptive, and a few disturbing. As a collection, however, I would have preferred either greater thematic unity or a more varied approach to the plots of various stories. In particular, I would have loved more character studies such as 'A Wife in a Million,' which broke up the monotony of McDermid's general formula by lingering more carefully over character development. The ending of 'Wife,' as well, is the least drastic plot twist and the most finely wrought conclusion of any story in this collection.
I'd recommend this book only to a few friends, and that with some hesitation: most of these stories would have far more impact if read in isolation from the other contents of the volume, and McDermid's scenes of lust and longing are a trifle on the heavy-handed side.