There’s an old expression that describes someone as “having a way with words’. There can’t be any contemporary writer who has a better “way with words” than Val McDermid. There are no dramatic flourishes, no histrionics and no scatter-gun blasts of redundant adjectives. What we have is simplicity, purity, and a command of language that is almost minimalist. She describes DCI Karen Pirie, thus:
“…a wardrobe that always looked slightly rumpled;
a haircut that never quite delivered what it had promised in the salon.
Women never felt threatened by her,
and men treated her like a wee sister or a favourite auntie.”
This is the fourth book featuring Karen Pirie, but newcomers learn just enough of Pirie’s backstory. Her lover, a fellow police officer has been killed. She is coping with her grief, but not easily. She tells civilians that she is attached to the Police Scotland Historic Cases Unit. The reality is that she – and her nice-but-dim assistant, DC Jason ‘The Mint’ Murray – are the PSHCU. An idiot boy and his mates steal a Land Rover, and decide to test it to destruction by driving over roundabouts. It works once, but the second time, the four-by-four flips, killing the hapless passengers and delivering driver Ross Garvie to the local hospital ICU. A routine DNA test links him to an unsolved rape and murder in Glasgow, years earlier. It clearly wasn’t him, but who was it?
To add to Pirie’s complicated life, a mentally troubled man is found shot through the head beside Loch Leven. He was harmless, occasionally foolish and always garrulous, but why was he a threat? Did the fact that his mother had been killed in an assumed IRA assassination mark him out for this totally unwanted attention? The trail of Ross Garvie’s DNA leads Pirie through a minefield of botched investigations, incorrect assumptions and misdeeds sheltering behind fiercely protected rights to privacy.
As you might expect, McDermid is completely at home in her geographical surroundings. We have the stark contrasts of the historic streets and alleyways of Edinburgh and the city’s brutal and depressing tower blocks clinging to its suburban coat tails. All too rarely, Karen Pirie gets to sit in her beautifully situated apartment, and we share her reverie as she looks out over the dark waters of the Firth of Forth, and across to the lights twinkling away on the Fife shore. The setting of the novel is cleverly done, but it is just one piece of the jigsaw – along with the fascinating details which make up the police procedural aspects of the story.
McDermid puts most of the pieces in place for us, but leaves us plenty to do for ourselves, and the completed picture is one that shows jealousy, human frailty, the sheer darkness of some people’s lives – but also a glittering thread of compassion and redemption. If the novel inspires you to check up on Karen Pirie’s backstory, then you will find it in The Distant Echo (2003), A Darker Domain (2008), and The Skeleton Road (2014)
It is lazy of critics to talk about “Queens” of crime, but since the deaths of PD James and Ruth Rendell, there is only one heir to the throne. McDermid just gets better and better with every book. Some writers grab us by the throat and drag us through the narrative; there are others who take us by the hand and lead us; McDermid simply has to beckon – and we follow.
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