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cold case crime

SERPENTINE . . . Between the covers

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No-one could ever accuse Jonathan Kellerman of not being industrious. It seems like only the other day that I reviewed The Museum of Desire (it was 9th November last year, in fact), but now Dr Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis are back again in the hills and canyons of LA, solving another mystery. A quick bio. for readers new to the series. Delaware is a practicing child psychologist who often (this is the 36th book in the series) helps LAPD detective Milo Sturgis with cases. Delware lives with a woman who repairs stringed instruments, while Sturgis has a partner, and has come through the dark years when being gay was something of a no-no in police ranks. The plot is as wonderfully convoluted and labyrinthine as ever. So (takes a deep breath), here goes.

Screen Shot 2021-02-04 at 18.47.53Sturgis has reluctantly taken on the coldest of cold cases. His orders have come down from some very well-connected people in the political and civic life of LA, and so he has been pulled off all other work. The mystery? What is the truth behind the death of a woman decades earlier, found in the wreckage of her burnt out Cadillac at the bottom of a canyon bordering Mulholland Drive? Careless driving? Might have been, were it not for the fact that she had also been shot in the head.

The woman pulling the strings is Ellie Barker, a millionaire former businesswoman, and daughter of Dorothy Swoboda the lady in the canyon. She was only three at the time, has no recollection of her mother, and never knew her natural father, having been brought up by her stepfather, Stanley Barker.

Anton Des Barres was a wealthy industrialist who made his money manufacturing high quality surgical equipment. After his second wife died, he became something of a womaniser, inviting young women back to his mansion where he and his children still lived. Delaware and Sturgis learn that Dorothy was one of Des Barres’s ‘harem’. They also discover a strange coincidence. Arlette Des Barres, the man’s second wife died after a fall from her horse in the rugged country near where Dorothy died. Stanley Barker was found dead, possibly as a result of a fall, in the same area.

Historic deaths are one thing, but when Ellie Barker’s boyfriend is shot, Delaware and Sturgis are faced with the uncomfortable thought that whatever the truth behind Dorothy’s murder, it is far from being dead and buried. It is alive and well, and extremely dangerous.

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PendantThe title of the book refers to a piece of jewellery, which Delaware and Sturgis eventually discover is deeply significant. Actually, the pair make many assumptions about the case, and most of them prove to be wrong, which only adds to the credibility as investigators. They are not super-sleuths; they are mortal, fallible – and consequently completely convincing.  It is only in the final pages that they – and we – learn the truth about the life and death of the woman who called herself Dorothy Swoboda, and it is dark stuff indeed.

Cynics might turn up their noses at this book and dismiss it as “formula fiction”. Fair enough, and, as the saying goes, “opinions are like (insert anatomical detail) – everyone has one”. What such critics find hard to cope with, I suggest, is that writers like Kellerman are rather like alchemists, in that they take base metal – cops, bad guys, slick dialogue, zooming around in cars, and turn it into gold – conviction, reading pleasure, empathy with the characters and a sense of “can’t wait for the next novel“. That is pretty impressive, at least in my book.

Serpentine is published by Century, and is out now.

BROKEN GROUND . . . Between the covers

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BGThe Body In The Bog is a nicely alliterative strapline normally used to liven up reports of archaeologists discovering some centuries-old corpse in a watery peat grave. The deaths of these poor souls does not usually involve an investigation by the local police force, but as Val McDermid relates, when the preserved remains are wearing expensive trainers, it doesn’t take the tenant of 221B Baker Street to deduce that the chap was not executed as part of some arcane tribal ritual back in the tenth century.

A pair of hopefuls from England have traveled to the bleak Scottish moors of Wester Ross, armed with what they hope is a treasure map. They hope to uncover not a sturdy wooden chest bursting with pirate doubloons or King John’s lost gold, but treasure of a different sort – two mint condition vintage motor cycles, worth a fortune at 2018 prices. They disinter the motorcycles with the help of a friendly local crofter and his mini JCB, but their elation is soured by – yes, you’ve guessed – the aforementioned fellow and his 1995 Nike Air Max sportswear.

Motorcycles? Buried in a Scottish peat bog? Marked on a map? Has Val McDermid finally lost her marbles after years of inventing fiendish ways for people to die? Leaving no question unanswered, I have to say yes, yes, yes – and an emphatic NO! Breaking Ground is the fifth in McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie series and is shot through with the author’s trademark brilliance. McDermid does complex, clever, conflicted women like no-one else, and Pirie – of Police Scotland’s Historic Crimes Unit – is a fine cop, scarred by personal tragedy, studiously unglamorous in looks and style, but with a fierce determination to seek justice for victims of crime, both living and dead. The police procedural aspect of the story is cleverly done, and provides the essential counterpont of rivalry, betrayal and bitterness which run beneath the main tune which is the public face of policing.

ValMcDermidIf music halls were still in vogue, McDermid would be the dextrous juggler, the jongleur who defies gravity by keeping several plot lines spinning in the air; spinning, but always under her control. There is the Nike bog body, a domestic spat which ends in savagery, a cold-case rape investigation which ends in a very contemporary tragedy, and an Assistant Chief Constable who is more concerned about her perfectly groomed press conferences that solving crime. They say that the moon has a dark side, and so does Edinburgh: McDermid (right)  takes us on a guided tour through its majestic architectural and natural scenery, but does not neglect to pull away the undertaker’s sheet to reveal the squalid back alleys and passageways which lurk behind the grand Georgian facades. We slip past the modest security and peep through a crack in the door at a meeting in one of the grander rooms of Bute House, the official residence of Scotland’s First Minister, even getting a glimpse of the good lady herself, although McDermid is far too discreet to reveal if she approves or disapproves of Ms Sturgeon.

Karen Pirie battles the metaphorical demons of her own personal history, while facing more literal malice in the person of a senior officer who is determined to bring her down. The death of her beloved partner Phil has bequeathed emotional turmoil, anger and longing. When she meets a potentially interesting man in the course of a murder investigation, she is conflicted. Is he lying to her? Is he just a glib charmer, ruggedly beautiful in his kilt, or is his interest in her – intentionally dowdy and brusquely professional as she is – genuine?

Val McDermid answers all these questions, and poses a few of her own, particularly about the state of modern Scotland and the role of cash-strapped police forces in a society which demands quick solutions, and to hell with integrity. Broken Ground is published by Little, Brown and is available in hardback and as a Kindle. Amazon says that it will be out in paperback early in 2019.

Click the link to read the review of McDermid’s previous novel, Insidious Intent.

 

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Out of Bounds

Val McDermidThere are just a handful of authors who, when you have their latest book in your hands, remind you of the sheer unalloyed pleasure that can come from reading. For me, that is the best feeling in the creative world, bar none – and that’s from someone who spent most of his professional life teaching and playing music. One of those treasured authors is Val McDermid, who you know is never going to let you down.

Her new book is the fourth case for Inspector Karen Pirie who, like her creator, is based in Fife, Scotland. A joyride for a local teenager ends in rather more than tears, as the unfortunate youth ends in a coma.No modern police novel is complete with the mystical world of DNA cropping up at some point, and in this case it links to a decades-old cold case and the terrible legacy of a terrorist bombing. Out of bounds will be available from 25th August, but can be pre-ordered here. Watch out for the full review on Fully Booked!

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