The 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.
If 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.