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Val McDermid

HOW THE DEAD SPEAK . . . Between the covers

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Val McDermid was anxious that over-enthusiastic reviewers and fans might give away the ending of her previous Carol Jordan and Tony Hill novel, Insidious Intent (click to read my review). So, given that there will be readers who have that novel on their TBR pile, no spoiler from me. Suffice to say that the metaphorical IED that blasted Jordan and Hill off the road in the final pages of the book have left them in, shall we say, rather difficult circumstances, and at the beginning of How The Dead Speak we find Carol Jordan very much a former police officer while Dr Hill is serving a four year jail sentence.

HTDS coverAfter the events of which we will not speak, Jordan’s Regional Major Incident Team has been disbanded while the woman who was its beating heart and soul keeps her fragile psyche from harm by continuing to renovate her home, a former barn on a heather covered northern hillside. Visitors are few and usually unwelcome, but none more so than Tony Hill’s vindictive and manipulative mother Vanessa who, after inflicting her abrasive personality on her son in a prison visit, coerces Jordan into using her investigative skills to track down a fraudster who has conned her out of a small fortune. Only slightly less welcome is Bronwen Scott, Tony Hill’s solicitor. She also has a job for Jordan, but this time it is to establish grounds for an appeal against a murder conviction handed down to a gay man who, the jury believes, has murdered a rent boy.

Meanwhile, back in the fictional city of Bradfield (which I have always assumed to be Leeds/Bradford) Jordan’s old ReMIT has been given the kiss of life. Its first post-resuscitation job, under the ambitious but box-ticking leadership of DCI Ian Rutherford, is to investigate the gruesome discovery of dozens of human remains in the grounds of a former Roman Catholic children’s home. I am not privy to Val McDermid’s religious beliefs, if she has them, but she certainly gets stuck into the darker side of Roman Catholicism’s social policy. OK, perhaps it’s something of an open goal these days, but as the RMIT try to discover the why and when of the St Margaret Clitherow Refuge skeletons, we learn some dark and unpalatable truths about the ‘Brides of Christ’ whose singular duty is to obey, no matter what the command.

The forty-or-so skeletons are, to an extent, explained away, but when the investigators find a further series of bodies, much more recent and apparently asphyxiated with plastic bags taped over their heads, the police activity intensifies. McDermid is brave enough to initially consign Jordan and Hill to the outer darkness, but she is canny enough to keep us comfortable by placing familiar figures at the centre of the action. Karim Hussain, Paula MacIntyre and Stacey Chen tut and eyeball-roll behind Rutherford’s back but somehow the investigation homes in on the real truth behind the more recent corpses in St Margaret’s vegetable garden.

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There are police procedurals, and then there are Val McDermid novels. Her ingenuity and unmatched clarity as a storyteller make How The Dead Speak a very special book. The Jordan/Hill story appears to be running on separate rails for part of the journey, but in a beautiful twist, everything comes together.

And there is a bonus. McDermid – who, as fans of her band will know, is no mean singer – might just be performing a cover version of one of my favourite songs Save The Best For Last (below). If any potential readers are sentimental old (or young) sods like me, you will be permitted a little sniffle and a dab at a moist eye when you read the final pages.

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How The Dead Speak is published by Little, Brown and will be out on 22nd August.

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.

 

INSIDIOUS INTENT . . . Between the covers

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Crime Fiction’s Most Distinctive Odd Couple? There would be several nominations in this category, were it to be at an awards dinner of some kind. You can make your own suggestions, using whatever criteria you wish; eccentricity, diversity of character and background, problem-solving methods – the choice is yours. I am going for sheer darkness, grim back stories, and an occasional incompatibilty that sometimes verges on the disastrous, but also a symbiotic need for each other that has no sexual element but is unique in the annals of crime fiction If this sounds like the relationship between DCI Carol Jordan and clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill, then we are spot on.

Val McDermid introduced them to us in 1995, with The Mermaids Singing, and now they are back for the tenth episode in their turbulent career. As we turn the first page, Jordan is already in trouble. She has tried to drink her way out of the life-shattering experience of feeling responsible for the terrible murders of her brother and his wife but, inevitably, one glass too many has resulted in a drink driving charge. Her bosses, not always as supportive, have conspired to declare the breathalyser equipment faulty, and Jordan is aquitted. But, having been tested with the same equipment, so is hell-raising young driver Dominic Barrowclough. When Barrowclough celebrates his freedom by killing himself and four other road users, Jordan’s guilt begins to reach crisis level.

II CoverBut there is still a job to be done, and in Carol Jordan’s case this is to head up a new police unit, called ReMIT – Regional Major Investigations Team – and their first case is a shocker. In a windswept lay-by on a lonely moorland road, a car is discovered, blazing out of control. When the flames die back sufficiently for the emergency services to get close, the charred remains of a young woman are discovered in the driving seat. The post mortem reveals that she has been strangled, and the blaze started, of all things, by a large box of potato crisp packets. Another such death soon follows, and the ReMIT team discover that they are dealing with a supremely clever killer who befriends his victims at weddings. He ‘crashes’ the wedding with consummate ease, and then targets young women who have attended the wedding unaccompanied. Spinning a yarn that he is a widower still mourning his late wife’s death from cancer, he seems to be the perfect gentleman. Caring, considerate, sexually undemanding – to the unfortunate women he seems like all their Christmases have come at once.

By sheer persistence and a stroke of good fortune, Jordan and her team find themselves a suspect, a young businessman called Tom Elton. But the evidence against him is, at best, circumstantial, and he attends the police interview alongside one of the smartest and most abrasive criminal defence lawyers in the region. Elton is scornful, triumpant, and he literally laughs in the faces of his accusers.

“I thought you lot were supposed to be the elite? I remember the news stories when you were formed. Top Guns, they said,” He scoffed, “Top Bums, more like. If I was your man, I’d be dancing in the streets. With you lot running the show, anyone could get away with murder.”

 All the while, as the investigation gathers speed – and then founders – McDermid demonstrates why she is considered by many to be the greatest contemporary British crime writer. The black clouds loom ever lower over Carol Jordan. Her team, some with their own demons to exorcise, look in vain to their boss for inspiration, while Tony Hill, perhaps for the first time in his career, can see no obvious way out of their travails.

Thomas Hardy, in his Wessex novels, was the master of wicked coincidences; a misinterpreted gesture, words said or unsaid, a lover innocently going to the wrong church for her wedding – these all set in train events which will bring the worlds of these characters down around their heads. McDermid creates one here, albeit one very much of the 21st century. and it contributes to the dramatic and totally unexpected finale of this fine novel. Insidious Intent came out in hardback and Kindle in 2017, and this paperback edition will be available on 22nd February from Sphere.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . And how!

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Robert_Goddard_author_photographI became a firm fan of Robert Goddard (left) after reading and reviewing his excellent Maxted trilogy, set in the turbulent days after The Great War. The best novelists are, in a way, both gamblers and alchemists. They are never afraid to try something different, to alter the formula, to ‘go for it’ with a fresh set of characters or, in extreme cases like Graham Hurley’s Joe Faraday, kill off the golden goose and incubate a new brood. Due out on 22 March, Goddard’s Panic Room draws us away from the post-Versailles world of James Maxted, and positions us firmly in the modern era. Part political thriller, part psychological drama and part social nightmare, Panic Room deals with the trauma of a young woman escaping those who would do her harm. She takes refuge in a huge empty villa, perched on a wind-buffeted Cornish cliff top. It is vast, and its array of unexplored rooms contains that most modern of social constructs – a panic room. Can Blake find it, and will it be secure enough to save her life?

ParkerRobert Parker is one of CriFi’s ‘bright young things’. His debut novel, A Wanted Man was published in 2017, but hard on the heels of that tale of a released prisoner seeking revenge on his enemies in the violent criminal hinterland of Manchester, he returns with Crook’s Hollow. Who knew that there was a CriFi genre called Country Noir? Not me, but the ‘Country’ in this case is not pedal steel guitars, yee-haw, banjos and frilled shirts, but the rough and ready hardscrabble rural landscape of north west England. The isolated village of Crook’s Hollow is not Ambridge, and readers hoping for an everyday tale of country folk should look away now. The Loxley family, with their extensive farms, have exerted an almost feudal influence over the valley for generations. But now their hegemony is being challenged by rapacious property developers, hired muscle and – above all – another local family whose grudges go back a century or more, and will only be expiated in blood. Crook’s Hollow is out at the end of March.

McDermid-Val-author-photo_credit-Alan-McCredie-crop-318x318Some modern writers are so popular, so much read and so far down the road to becoming national treasures, that it almost seems like an affront to their status for (adopting Uriah Heep-like crouch and wringing hands) ‘umble reviewers to voice an opinion. Kirkcaldy’s First lady, Val McDermid, (left) is one such daunting figure. I have never had the pleasure of meeting Ms M, but she comes over on social media as being good- natured, endlessly patient and courteous to a fault. It goes without saying that she is a bloody fine writer and there can be few modern CriFi partnerships to match that of DCI Carol Jordan and Tony Hill. Now, heaven be praised, they return in paperback. Insidious Intent came out in Kindle and hardcover in summer 2017, but if you can hang on until the last week in February, you can get your paws on a paperback edition. Carol and Tony have to solve a macabre mystery; what is the true story behind the burned body found in a torched car on a remote country road?

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OUT OF BOUNDS … Between The Covers

Val HeaderThere’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.

You can follow the link to see your buying choices for Out of Bounds

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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