Val McDermid’s THE VANISHING POINT opens with scenes that draw the reader in by their familiarity. I’m sure we’ve all stood in those interminable airport queues that are the staple of modern travelling and we’ve all been at our wit’s end arguing with some intransigent bureaucrat or other. And so is Stephanie Harker who has arrived in the US from England with 5-year old Jimmy and is pulled aside for an additional security screening while changing planes at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. She watches in horror as Jimmy is kidnapped from under her very nose while the TSA staff ignore her pleas and taser her for being a potential security threat. When she finally makes someone understand what has happened the child is long gone and Stephanie is then interviewed by an FBI agent about hers and Jimmy’s history in an attempt to glean who might have wanted to kidnap him. Most of the rest of the book is taken up with Stephanie recounting her long history with reality TV star Scarlett Higgins and her son Jimmy. Amidst these lengthy flashbacks there are short interludes depicting a frustrating progress in the search for Jimmy or his kidnapper, both of whom appear to have vanished into thin air.
McDermid is a superb spinner of yarns and THE VANISHING POINT is yet another piece of evidence to prove the point. This really isn’t a standard kind of thriller as it spends only a fraction of its pages dealing with the kidnapping and its aftermath but, despite this, it managed to keep me on the edge of my seat for almost the whole book.
It is through Stephanie’s work as a ghost writer that she meets Scarlett – a ladette kind of character who Stephanie assumes she will dislike. It is to Stephanie’s (and McDermid’s) credit though that ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ Scarlett is soon seen as something more than the two-dimensional drunken celebrity everyone expects her to be. Stephanie is hired to ghost write Scarlett’s ‘rags to riches’ life story in the form of a letter to Scarlett’s unborn child. First due to her diligence in doing her job and then also due to a genuine affection she starts to draw out a more complex character than the one familiar from the newspapers and the two develop a friendship that surprises everyone.
As well as the snappy pace of the book I enjoyed McDermid’s not-so-gentle digs at popular culture and media, in particular ‘the red tops‘ (a phrase completely unfamiliar to me before reading this book) and the general public’s seemingly insatiable demand for dirt (the grubbier the better). The two central characters of Stephanie and Scarlett are nicely drawn and the depiction of their friendship, a thing not often seen in crime fiction where characters are either friendless or the friendships are fully formed outside the confines of the pages, is an unexpected highlight of the book.
I have to admit I found the ending a bit predictable, a lot silly and not really in keeping with the rest of the book but as I enjoyed the middle 90% of the book I’m not taking a lot of points off for a dodgy ending. All in all this is a very entertaining read that might just make you look at reality TV and/or the media about it a little differently.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3.5/5
Publisher Little, Brown 
Length 434 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series standalone
Source I borrowed it from the library
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