The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid

the skeleton roadA welcome return to form…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

When a long-dead body is found on the roof of a derelict Edinburgh school, the case is handed to Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of the Historic Cases Unit. Calling on her friend and colleague, forensic anthropologist Dr River Wilde, for help in identifying the body, Karen soon finds that the victim is of Eastern European origin. So begins a case that is as much about the history of the Serbo-Croatian war of the 1990s as it is about a murder investigation.

When Val McDermid is on form she’s one of the best of the current crime writers, and I’m pleased to say that she’s on form in this one. Personally I’m glad to see her getting away from the Tony Hill series, which in my opinion has gone on too long and has lost its way over the last few books. (In fact, I haven’t even been able to bring myself to read the last couple.) And, unlike her last foray into standalone thriller territory with the truly bad The Vanishing Point, this one is a return to her strengths as a police procedural with an intriguing and believable plot. Although much of the action takes place in Oxford and Croatia, Karen Pirie is based in Scotland and I enjoyed seeing McDermid return to her roots (which she also did very successfully recently in her take on Austen’s Northanger Abbey.) Karen is a likeable detective – neither drunken nor angst-ridden, she is in a stable supportive relationship with a man she loves, and seems to get on well with her colleagues, all of which is nicely refreshing.

The new Scottish Crime Campus - McDermid tells us it's in the shape of a human chromosome and the barcode effect is meant to represent DNA. Hmm!
The new Scottish Crime Campus – McDermid tells us it’s in the shape of a human chromosome and the barcode effect is meant to represent DNA. Hmm!

As the investigation advances, Karen contacts an Oxford University professor, Maggie Blake, who was involved in a scheme to bring ‘underground universities’ to Croatia just before the war began. While there, Maggie had fallen in love with a Croatian army officer, so stayed on once the war began. Karen hopes she will be able to shed some light on the country at that time, and perhaps more specifically on why the Edinburgh victim may have been murdered. The book is told mainly in the third-person past-tense from Karen’s viewpoint, but there are sections between the chapters where Maggie tells the story of her time in Croatia and her return to Oxford after the war. There is another strand which links through the book of two detectives from the International War Crimes Tribunal, who are investigating a string of murders of suspected war criminals. Oddly, it’s these characters who provide a bit of much-needed humour to lift the book, despite their task – they are an ill-matched couple, fighting to keep their jobs, and their rather bumbling interactions with each other and Karen stop the book from becoming too oppressively dark.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

But the main story is very dark indeed, as we are told of some of the atrocities that happened during that period. McDermid has clearly done her research thoroughly and, although obviously the events in the book are mainly fictional, they have a horrific ring of truth about them. While we’re mainly seeing the story from the Croatian viewpoint, McDermid briefly gives the Serbian side of the story too and, while she doesn’t attempt to justify, she makes sure the reader is aware of how complex the situation was – not quite as black and white as it is sometimes portrayed. Living through this period as I did, I must say I’m much clearer about what went on after reading this book than I ever was at the time.

The book isn’t without its flaws, the main one being that there is too small a cast of suspects and it’s therefore pretty easy to spot the solution fairly early on. This seems to be becoming a frequent problem in current crime-writing – the authors seem to be so concerned with cramming in a great deal of research sometimes at the expense of creating a complex mystery. However, taking the book as a whole, the quality of the writing and the depth of the story more than compensate for the weaknesses, and overall I found this an absorbing and satisfying read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

36 thoughts on “The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid

  1. FictionFan – So glad to hear this one worked for you. It certainly sounds like a terrific story, and of course, McDermid is such a skilled writer. I wonder if this one will remain a standalone or whether there might be another series in the works…

  2. Hmm. Even I might be persuaded my this! (Fiction Fan looks nervous, where has she gone wrong?)

    I’ve recently read a biography which included quite a lot about the former Yugoslavia complexities (also coming to the ‘not quite as clear cut as often painted’ conclusion), and the fact that you’ve pointed out that the main detective is not a drunk with severe personality problems makes a big change to the tendencies of the genre.

    I’m in the middle of a crime corker which will surface probably in a week (stuck in a review queue again now) on my blog which I’m very very impressed with (and bought!) and again, its such a relief to find the principal detective is a perfectly sensible man, with a bit of a temper, particularly when presented with prejudiced bullies, but this is absolutely understandable. He even has good relationships with his parents! Okay, he has a dead wife, but this can happen to anyone.

    • You might enjoy it – I know you’ve liked one of her books before. The basic plot is definitely a bit too standard crime for you, I think, but it plays second fiddle to all the stuff about Croatia.

      Yes, I don’t think any war is ever simple, though at the time there’s always a tendency to think of one side as ‘good’ and one as ‘bad’. There’s an argument starting up on my Rebel Yell review on Az US, because some (Northerners) are declaring it was about slavery and some (Southerners) are saying it was never so simple. Intriguing – I may have to read a proper history of it. But I doubt I’ll ever fully understand the whole Balkans/Eastern Europe thing…

      Sounds good! No hints? I’m so bored with the dysfuntional detective now… it’s so unrealistic apart from anything else. Who could possibly do such a difficult job if they weren’t at least reasonably in control of themselves?

      • You will just have to wait till it appears – and as its not a Netgalley or other freebie better wait till I get to the end and make the post, but at the moment it is ticking all the boxes. It’s much more about politics really than bludgeoning people with heavy objects

        • Huh! I might go in the huff then, so hurry up! Because after lots of pretty dreadful books recently (what has happened to fiction this year?) I could do with some good ones…

  3. Sounds a good one. Like you, I’m glad to see the back of Tony Hill and co – my suspension of disbelief got stuck at about number four and I haven’t read any since. I still like the Lindsay Gordon books best though.

    • Yes, I liked her earlier stuff much more than her more recent stuff, but hopefully this one is a sign of her getting back on track. The Tony Hill ones eventually turned into a kind of soap with serial killers…

  4. I have noticed a similar tendency in my own writing. Once I find a cache of fabulous information, I want to include it. As my teacher keeps telling me: “It’s a picture book, for cripe’s sake!” Well. she doesn’t really say that, she says something very close to that. 😀 So one must decide what to leave on the cutting room floor. And when you’re writing for adults, yes, you can leave more of the research in, but not at the expense of the story.

    • It’s something I think is happening more and more, and I assume it’s because the internet has made so much information so easily accessible. But I really feel it’s having a bad effect on both crime and lit-fic at the moment – lit-fic seems to be full of people telling us stuff about things – places, periods of history etc – and forgetting that really it should be about people and the ‘human condition’. And quite often it reads as if it’s been cut and pasted straight from wiki. It’s all a matter of getting the balance right.

      When I rule the world, I will make every author read a Dickens novel between finishing their first draft and starting their second, to be reminded of how loads of description can be included while still leaving room for a complex story… (still sounding bitter! Just abandoned another one – I think I’ve abandoned more books this year than in the whole of my previous life… 😉 )

  5. This one didn’t really work for me. In fact I enjoyed ‘The Vanishing Point’ more. I thought McDermid was too engaged with what was happening in the Balkans to work through the crime element of the novel sufficiently. I felt there was a bigger non-crime novel fighting to get out but she had to make it a crime novel because that is what her publisher and audience expect.

    • I think I agree with that to an extent although I enjoyed the novel. But that’s really what I was implying about the lack of balance between giving us info and having a complex plot. I must say, as an avid factual reader, I could do with considerably less history telling in fiction in general, though it seems to be the thing to do at the moment. It tends to be an information dump rather than weaving research subtly into the story. I hated ‘The Vanishing Point’ though – the way she used and distorted the story of Jade Goody made me feel distinctly queasy, and I thought the denouement was one of the most ridiculous I’ve read in a long time.

    • She’s variable for me. She was one of my favourites for years and then she seemd to lose her way. I’d pretty much given up on her but this one sounded interesting – and definitely seems to be back up there. Maybe not as good as her best, but good nevertheless…

  6. A compatriot she appears to be. What an interesting life she has led. The downside for me where the book is concerned is the small group of possible suspects. I like to see them struggling.

    On another topic if you will forgive me, I have two books on my shelf at NetGalley, and cannot seem to download the books to my Kindle. I have done all the directions required in vain. I have contacted them, and am waiting to hear back. The same thing happened the first time I was on NetGalley in 2011 I think it was. An author had requested me and I gave up after awhile. I shall persevere this time, but it would be nice to just be able to squeeze the button and have a book appear.

    • The only thing I can think is that there’s the wrong e-mail address in your NetGalley profile – it needs to be your kindle’s e-mail address rather than your own. Generally speaking, that’ll be the name you to log onto Amzon with followed by @free.kindle.com. So for example JoeBloggs@free.kindle.com

      If you go to your NetGalley profile page ( https://www.netgalley.com/reviewer/profile and then sign in), about halfway down on the left-hand side you will see a heading ‘Get Ready to Read’. Check if your kindle’s e-mail address is in correctly under that. If so, let me know and we can try something else. If not, change the address to the right one – again, if you don’t know your kindle e-mail address, pop back and I’ll tell you where you can find it.

      Of course, you may well have done all this already… 🙂

      • Thank you, FF. I have spent the day off and on trying to get it to work for me. Triple checked both Amazon and NetGalley and all is in order. The worst if it is that I really want to read those books. I have asked for help and they told me the same thing you told me. Alas.

          • Well…that was half of the problem. *laughing* I hadn’t even used my Kindle the two months that my sister was visiting. Then I was doing fall house cleaning (not yet complete) and I wasn’t thinking about how I had turned it off for some now forgotten reason. Bless you.

            Now I have to email my tech person who has been tearing her hair out trying to help me resolve my problem. Of course, /she/ did not ask me about my wifi thus believing that I am more intelligent than you did. 😀 Also, I need to clear out my cloud of 21 of 22 copies of the book….

            I am grateful.

            The other half was that no one told me about the cloud. I feel a little nervous about the cloud, so I haven’t done much but stare at it.

            • HahahaHA! No, no, it was because I knew you were so intelligent that I asked – if you weren’t, you’d never have known how to switch your wifi off in the first place! 😉

              Glad it’s sorted, and if you remember to switch your wifi on before you click on Send to Kindle you should never have to worry about the cloud again…

          • Dadblamed scary cloud, but I subdued it just the same. I now have the two books I requested and one that an author had asked me to review long ago. Won’t he be surprised?

  7. Oh! I just think that you’re too goodly good at solving mysteries now. I bet even Agatha couldn’t stump you! (She seems to stump me all the time.)

    Now that building is an interest. A chromosome? Have you ever seen it in person?

  8. Glad you enjoyed I really enjoyed learning more about the war crimes in this one – it was a fresh perspective fro me…have you noticed a tendency lately for authors to really use their books to promote a cause? Some do it less forcibly than others.

    • Yes, nearly every crime novel seems to be doing that these days. Must be honest, and maybe it’s cause I read so much factual stuff, I really prefer the old-fashioned whodunit type of crime. But this one was done well, and she’d obviously done her research, and managed to work it into the story.

  9. So with you on Tony Hill – that series lost it’s mojo way back. And I didn’t even bother with The Vanishing Point after reading some dire reviews! Glad to hear she’s back to what she does best – I’ve just started it; your review bodes well!

    • The Vanishing Point was really bad – I found it quite hard to believe she’d written it. So I’m really pleased this one was pretty good – otherwise I might have had to give up on her completely.

    • Yes, this was a good one. The stuff about Croatia was very interesting and it was clear she’d really done her research. But I was also happy that she’d partly set it in Scotland – nice to see her ‘come home’.

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