Broken Ground (Karen Pirie 5) by Val McDermid

Peat bogs are dangerous places…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

DCI Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit is in the middle of re-investigating a series of rapes when she is diverted to a crime scene in the Highlands. A woman and her husband are on a kind of treasure hunt, looking for something that the woman’s grandfather buried in a peat bog long ago. They find the spot, but when they dig down into the peat, they are shocked to discover not only the looted items but the body of a man, almost perfectly preserved. The body only dates back to the 1990s, though, so Karen must unravel the mystery of who killed the man and why. And Karen also finds herself involved almost by accident in the investigation of another crime, one that she hoped she’d prevented. Meantime her new boss has given her an extra team member, a thing Karen would be grateful for if only she felt there wasn’t an ulterior motive behind it…

I’m thoroughly enjoying the Karen Pirie books and this is another excellent addition to the series. Now that a national police force has taken the place of the old regional forces in Scotland in real life, it gives fiction writers the ability to have their detectives travel all over the country, and McDermid is as comfortable writing about the Highlands as she is her hometown of Edinburgh. I’m biased, I know, but I love that McDermid has set this series back in Scotland after too long away. She gives an amazingly good sense of place and a wholly authentic feel to contemporary Scottish life. Forget the unrealistic gun-totin’ gang wars of so much “Tartan Noir” or the tartan twee of the cosier side of Scottish crime fiction (usually written by nostalgic Canadians or Americans). This is modern Scotland: warts and all, for sure, but also with a vibrant, well educated population and a professional police force where dysfunctional drunken mavericks wouldn’t be tolerated.

This falls very much under the category of police procedural rather than mystery or thriller. Karen and her team identify their suspect fairly early on and most of the book is about how they go about finding the evidence to make a case that would stand up in court. It’s an intriguing and realistic look at how policing is done, but could perhaps be a little dull in the wrong hands. McDermid, however, spices the whole thing up by having the HCU working on other cases alongside the main one, by throwing in some office politics, and by having some great characterisation of Karen herself, her young sidekick Jason, her friends and colleagues, not to mention the suspects and witnesses they deal with along the way. Karen is well into recovery from her grief now (deliberately vague, in case people haven’t read the earlier books) and McDermid has handled that whole storyline superbly, I feel – never letting it be forgotten or glossed over, but not making either Karen or the reader wallow endlessly.

Downsides – there’s some swearing, though less than in most Scottish crime fiction, and bits of it, especially relating to the office politics, triggered my over-sensitive credibility monitor. Also, one of the problems of living in such a small country is that all our successful people tend to know each other, and it was very obvious throughout that McDermid thinks of our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, as a friend. There’s a little too much rather sycophantic praise of her and the Scottish Government in general for my taste – most of us, like the people in most democracies, have a rather higher level of healthy scepticism when it comes to our leaders.

Val McDermid

But these were minor issues that didn’t spoil my absorption in the story. I loved wandering the streets of Edinburgh with Karen, travelling north with her, meeting up with her friends again, and seeing how Jason is maturing and growing in confidence in each book. I enjoyed Karen’s visit to Glasgow and McDermid’s tongue-in-cheek nods to the old rivalry between the citizens of Scotland’s two biggest cities. The pacing is excellent so that, although it’s a longish read, I never found it dragging. The main storyline of the murder is intriguing, with parts of it going back to the war, though most of the book is firmly set in the present day. I even learned a small piece of Scotland’s history I didn’t know before. Third person, past tense, of course, as all the best books are.

It would work fine as a standalone. I have read a couple of these out of order and actually missed one or two of the earlier ones, but I haven’t felt that’s left me struggling in any way. In short, highly recommended – I hope McDermid sticks with this series for a long time to come.

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

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31 thoughts on “Broken Ground (Karen Pirie 5) by Val McDermid

  1. This does sound like a good ‘un, FIctionFan. You’re right that a lot of crime fiction set in Scotland is either too twee or has too much focus on gang wars and crime lords. It’s not easy to find a series with a good balance, and I’m glad you think this one does. And, of course, with McDermid’s skill, I’m not surprised you were drawn into the story, too. I do like a story that’s authentic in its depiction of the people, too…

    • McDermid and Rankin are the ones who give the most realistic picture of contemproary Scotland, I think, of the current crop of writers. Of course, Tartan Noir has become a style of its own now, but Scotland has changed so much since it began it always feels curiously outdated to me. McDermid is such a good writer and this series is developing really well… 🙂

  2. You’ve been on a roll with some good books lately (aside from a few clunkers). I like a series that you can read out of order, though apparently there are some life issues that seem to make this one you need to read in order (like why the character is grieving).

    • I have! I seem to be either loving or hating books at the moment wth very few that fall into the meh category. The grieving thing is minor and not really part of an ongoing story arc – it relates to something that happened incidental to the story at the end of one of the earlier vooks, so I do think these could be read as standalones except for people who really hate reading out of order.

  3. I’ll really have to catch up with this series at some point. I kind of lost my grip on McDermid over the Tony Beech series – too violent for me, but I loved her more ordinary crime books.

    • Me too, and one or two of her standalones didn’t work for me either. But I do think she’s back on top form in this series – reminiscent of her earlier stuff. I think you’ll enjoy them!

  4. What a fab review and you’ve made me want to dive into this one even though my knowledge of Scotland is only through books. I prefer Val McDermid’s version than the Tartan Noir and as you know I’m not really a ‘twee’ type of person…

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I’m afraid a lot of Tartan Noir describes a Scotland, and especially a Glasgow, I really don’t recognise. But McDermid and Ian Rankin do a good job of redressing the balance. And there is a hunky Highlander in a kilt in this one… 😉

    • I do too – she manages to make them realistic without becoming dull, mainly due to her excellent characterisation, I think. I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read ay of Heaney’s poetry.. *shambles off in disgrace*

  5. Hey, who are you calling nostalgic??? hahha

    McDiarmid is a great author isn’t she? I’ve enjoyed the very few books of hers that I’ve read, but I’m always glad to hear about more I can get my hands on!

    • Hahaha – well, OK, sorry! (But it’s true… 😉 )
      She’s quite prolific and has done various styles over the years, but I do think this series is some of her best stuff… 😀

    • Ah, my secret is to only add one from the series at a time! 😉 This would be a good place to start with McDermid though. Her earliest series might feel a bit dated now, and the Tony Hill books, which started out great but graphic, got progressively less of the former and more of the latter as time went on…

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