🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
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.
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.
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.