A Darker Domain (Karen Pirie 2) by Val McDermid

Scabs and kidnappers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As the miners’ strike of 1984 dragged on, the miners and their families were increasingly desperate, relying on donations of food from sympathisers and collecting wood for fuel. A group of miners from the Fife village of Newton of Wemyss secretly left one morning to make their way to Nottingham, where the pits had re-opened, worked by men who were considered traitors – scabs – by the men of the National Union of Mineworkers. That morning, Mick Prentice disappeared too, and it was assumed he had gone with the men to Nottingham. Now in 2007, his daughter has an urgent need to contact him but can find no trace, so she reports him as a missing person. Because of the length of time since he was last seen, Karen Pirie of the Cold Case Review Team takes on the investigation. But she’ll soon be distracted by another cold case that has resurfaced.

Long ago, the daughter of local business magnate Sir Broderick Maclennan Grant was kidnapped with her baby son and held to ransom. The pay-off went wrong – Catherine, the daughter, was killed and no trace has ever been found of the child, Adam, nor were the kidnappers ever caught. Now an investigative journalist, Bel Richmond, has happened across something while on holiday in Italy that may provide the key to the mystery. Sir Brodie uses his considerable influence to have the case moved to the top of Karen’s priority list…

When Val McDermid is on form, as she is here, there are few authors to touch her in terms of telling a great story. This series, by concentrating on cold cases, allows her to revisit aspects of Scotland’s past and she does so with a deep understanding of the effect of events on the lives of the people caught up in them. The miners’ strike was a major turning point for Scotland, and for Britain more widely, as the Prime Minister nicknamed the Iron Lady (Mrs Thatcher) and the most powerful union leader in the land nicknamed King Arthur (Arthur Scargill) met head on in a battle for supremacy: a battle in which, as always, the foot soldiers – the miners and their families – became little more than cannon fodder. McDermid doesn’t delve deeply into the rights and wrongs of the dispute, but she shows with devastating clarity the impact the long-running strike had on mining communities, causing major hardship, testing old loyalties, straining marriages to their limits and dividing families, and leaving a legacy of bitterness that still lives on today.

She doesn’t allow the story to get lost amid the background, however. Karen soon discovers that there’s more to Mick’s disappearance than first appears. As she interviews his wife, still bitter about the disgrace he brought on his family by scabbing, and then the various other people who knew him back then, Karen gradually unearths a very human story with elements of love and betrayal, selfishness and greed, tragedy and guilt.

The other story too, the kidnapping, is just as human. Sir Brodie loved his daughter, perhaps too much, wanting to control her life and objecting to her choices, both in boyfriends and in career. As obstinate as her father, Catherine showed no desire to compromise or yield, leaving her mother trying to be the peacemaker in the middle. Her death left Sir Brodie not only bereaved, but with no opportunity for the reconciliation they might have had if they had been given time. Now, although he has made a new life for himself, Sir Brodie is still driven to find the kidnappers and have revenge, legally or otherwise, and to find what happened to the child – he has never given up hope that his grandson may be alive. He doesn’t have faith that the police will solve the crime after all this time, so he persuades the journalist, Bell, to investigate the Italian connection and, hoping for the scoop of a lifetime, she’s only too happy to oblige.

Val McDermid

The book skips about a lot between the various timelines and sometimes following Karen, sometimes Bel. But McDermid keeps total control, so that the reader never feels lost despite the complexities of plot and structure. It’s a fairly lengthy book but never dips or drags – the settings and story hold the attention throughout, and the characterisation is excellent, done with some degree of sympathy for even the least likeable among them. Karen herself is one of the most enjoyable detectives on the contemporary crime scene, not perfect but not an angst-ridden maverick, professional and skilled at her job, but with a life outside work. Here she’s working mostly with her long-term friend and now sergeant, Phil Parhatka, and there’s a welcome lack of the tedious sexism storyline most crime writers seem to feel necessary whenever they have a female protagonist.

One of her best, in my opinion, and considering how good she is, that’s saying a lot. Highly recommended.

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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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Resistance – A BBC Radio Drama by Val McDermid

Public health warning…

🙂 🙂 😐

It’s summer festival season, and a crowd of thousands has descended on a farmer’s field for an open-air rock concert celebrating the solstice. There are all the usual food vendors offering varying degrees of quality and hygiene so it’s not too surprising when there’s an outbreak of what appears to be food poisoning. But although sufferers seem to recover within twenty-four hours, days or weeks later they begin to have relapses, developing skin lesions and eventually dying. And in the meantime, they’ve dispersed all over Britain and the world, spreading the infection…

The story is told by Zoe Meadows (Gina McKee), a journalist who happened to be on the spot at the concert when the first outbreak occurred. Though not infected herself, she sniffs a story and sets out to investigate how the infection began. Soon she begins to suspect a factory farm which uses particularly inhumane methods of housing its animals may be the source. Meantime, scientists are working round the clock to find a cure. Zoe makes contact with one of them, Aasmah, who explains that existing antibiotics aren’t strong enough to fight this disease. It has mutated to a point of being resistant to everything scientists have to throw at it.

Isn’t it odd how something that should work sometimes simply doesn’t? This has a great cast who all turn in top class performances, many of them with lovely, authentic Geordie accents (though not broad enough to be hard to understand). It’s written by Val McDermid which means that the script flows and sounds natural – the dialogue never feels stilted. The production values are great – listening through headphones made me feel I was in the middle of it as the sound shifted around me, the incidental music is suitably ominous and threatening, and the sound effects – dogs barking, street noises, etc. – are so convincing I several times found myself checking they were coming from the disc and not the real world. The science is totally credible and so is the eventual outcome – horrific but believable.

Gina McKee

And therein lies the problem. Perhaps there’s somebody out there who’s not aware that overuse of antibiotics has led to a situation where some bacteria have mutated to the point where they’ve developed resistance, leading to a cycle of ever stronger drugs, more mutations, and round and round we go, with no certainty that humanity will be the eventual winner. Maybe some people don’t know that they should stop pestering their doctors for antibiotics every time they have a sniffle. Maybe there are some doctors who are still too wimpy to say no to such patients. But, a little like this paragraph, this drama feels more like a public health warning than anything else. A well written and well performed public health warning, but still…

When it said at the end that it was “developed through the Wellcome Trust Experimental Stories scheme”, my suspicions were further aroused, since the Wellcome Trust is a scientific research charity. I donned my deerstalker, lit my pipe and turned to Google. And indeed – this is a series in which they encourage writers to dramatise matters of scientific concern in an attempt to inform and engage the public. Very worthy, but unfortunately that’s what it sounds like in the end. Because the basic plan is to show us how, if we don’t start behaving, we will all die. Die! Die, I tell you! True, but hardly entertaining.

An extract from the BBC’s webpage on the drama says:

Programme consultant Christopher Dowson, who is Professor of Microbiology at the University of Warwick and Trustee for the charity Antibiotic Research UK says: “This fantastic production presents in an emotionally engaging manner some of the important issues that have given rise to our current predicament – ever rising resistance and fewer effective antibiotics. My hope is that listeners will go on to ask ‘what can I do to be part of the solution?’.”

OK, fine, Professor Dowson, but just two points. Firstly, it started emotionally engaging but rapidly descended into being simply downright depressing. And secondly, it would have been great if it had suggested answers to the question “what can I do to be part of the solution?” rather than implying that there is no solution and no hope and that we’re all going to die. Die! Die, I tell you! And if that’s not bad enough, apparently we’re all going to come out in purple spots first!

Val McDermid

Maybe I’m being unfair. I did work in health care for many years, so maybe the antibiotics issue isn’t as widely known amongst the general public as I think. But even so, I suspect what most people will say at the end is “Well, that was depressing!” and head for the cake tin rather than becoming activists. Perhaps when it appeared on the radio it was accompanied by discussion programmes that may have answered the “what can I do?” question but as a standalone on disc it preaches without advising, offering despair unleavened by hope. A missed opportunity and, frankly, a bit of a waste of a great writer and an excellent cast.

NB This CD set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. It’s a three disc set with a running time of 2 hours 30 minutes. It’s also available on Audible.

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Out of Bounds (Karen Pirie 4) by Val McDermid

Murder in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

out of boundsWhen some drunken lads steal a Land Rover and then crash it, a blood sample is taken from the driver and routinely checked for DNA matches. The results show a familial match to the perpetrator of a horrific unsolved rape and murder from 1996, so DCI Karen Pirie and her cold case team, consisting of herself and one DC, reopen the case. However it becomes more complicated when they discover the car crash victim was adopted, so they will have to seek the Court’s permission to access his birth records. Meantime, a young man called Gabriel Abbott is found dead from a gunshot wound in a park, a death that the investigating officer is eager to call suicide and close the case. Karen’s not so sure, and when she discovers that Gabriel’s mother was herself murdered over 20 years earlier, she finds herself drawn to try to solve the older case and see if it impacted in any way on Gabriel’s death.

I really like this new series of McDermid’s. She has always been one of my favourite crime writers, but I tired eventually of the Tony Hill series, so I’m delighted she’s gone off in a new direction. These books are strictly police procedurals, told in a straightforward linear fashion with no flashy gimmicks or unbelievable twists. I’ve only read one other in the series, The Skeleton Road, which had a plot-line that took us back to the Serbo-Croatian war and was as much about the horrors of that as about the crime under investigation. While I enjoyed it very much, in truth I prefer to get my history from history books, so preferred this one which is more traditional in style – a crime or crimes, suspects, motives, clues, red herrings, etc., but all set firmly in the present and with a totally authentic feel to the investigation.

Karen Pirie is an excellent character, perhaps my favourite of all the various lead characters McDermid has created over the years. She is refreshingly non-maverick, working within the rules and procedures of contemporary policing, and getting on with her colleagues on the whole. Somewhat tediously, she has the usual useless boss who’s always trying to do her down, but she gets round him with a combination of wit and manipulation, instead of the rather unbelievable outright defiance and belligerence that so many fictional detectives seem able to get away with. She thinks her young assistant Jason is “thick”, but is nevertheless a good, supportive boss to him, and during the course of this book, as he matures into the role, she finds she’s beginning to appreciate him more. And again unlike many of the loner detectives of today, she has a few good friends and a normal social life outside work.

In this book she is still grieving after the events at the end of the last one. (I’m leaving that deliberately vague to avoid spoilers – the books work perfectly as standalones and don’t have much of a continuing story arc, but like most series they’re probably best read in order.) But her grief is shown believably, without wallowing. It recurs from time to time but lessens as time goes on, and Karen handles it without taking to drink or beating people up or all the other things our dysfunctional detectives usually do.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

There’s also a strand in the book about some of the Syrian refugees who have come to Scotland fleeing from the horrors in their own country. McDermid handles this very well, showing them not as potential terrorists, rapists, murderers or religious fanatics, but as normal people who have seen and experienced terrible things, but survived, and who now want to find a way to build new lives for themselves and their families in a safer place.

The plotting is great, with enough complexity to keep the reader guessing but without ever straying far over the credibility line. Although there are two separate cases on the go, McDermid juggles them well, never letting one be forgotten at the expense of the other. And personally, I’m delighted to see her set a series in her native Scotland. She doesn’t shine a light on the political zeitgeist in quite the way Rankin often does, but she creates a clear and authentic picture of contemporary Scotland, particularly with regards to policing and justice systems.

All-in-all, an excellent read which I highly recommend. I’m hoping this series will have a long run.

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

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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.

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Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Almost totes amazeballs!

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

northanger abbey mcdermidThis may be the most disappointing thing I will read this year. After the abomination that was Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility, I was confident – oh, so confident – about the inevitable direness of Val McDermid’s entry for the Austen Project –  Northanger Abbey. There I was – poison pen at the ready, sarcasm ready to drip like venom, scalpel sharpened to rip the very heart out of it – and dang me if it doesn’t turn out the book’s not too bad at all! In fact – and you’ll never know how much it hurts me to say this – it’s actually quite good fun.

To be fair, McDermid’s task was always going to be easier than Trollope’s. While Austen’s Sense & Sensibility is a serious book which casts a penetrating light on aspects of the society of her time that no longer exist in ours, Northanger Abbey is a much lighter concoction that deals with the eternal subjects of true and false love, and obsession with literary trends. So, while I remain unconvinced of the need or merit of updating Austen at all, this is probably the one that lends itself most easily to updating.

After an hour of being whirled and birled, of Gay Gordons and Dashing White Sergeants, of pas de bahs and dos a dos, they broke for refreshments. Cat was uncomfortably aware that she was sweating like an ill-conditioned pony and that Henry seemed positively cool by comparison.

Edinburgh Book Festival - in sunshine!
Edinburgh Book Festival – in sunshine!

Our heroine Cat Morland is fairly inexperienced in the ways of the world, having been home-schooled by her mother in a Devon rectory. So when her well-off arty neighbours Andrew and Susie Allen invite her to come with them to the Edinburgh Festival, Cat is thrilled. And, as in the original, she’s even more thrilled when she is befriended by Bella Thorpe, never thinking that Bella may see her only as a way to get closer to Cat’s brother James. When tickets arrive for a Ball, Susie sends Cat off to get lessons in Scottish country dancing, where she meets the handsome, charming, mysterious and slightly exotic Henry Tilney, who also happens to be a superb dancer (slight pause while we all swoon, girls). All it would take for Henry to be perfect would be if he happened to live in a Gothic Abbey in the Borders and had some mysterious secret in his family…and what a coincidence! He does! And soon Cat is invited for a visit to Northanger Abbey, where she can indulge her romantic imagination to the full…

Before she could open the book, there was a clap of thunder so loud and so close that Cat cried out in terror. The room was abruptly plunged into darkness and a second deafening thunderclap vibrated through the air. Cat curled into a ball and moaned softly. What terrible powers had her discovery unleashed?

Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford House seems like a good likeness for Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey
Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford House seems like a good likeness for Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey

McDermid has stuck pretty closely to the original story but has made some changes to the characters and plot to make it fit better in a modern world. Cat isn’t quite as hero-worshipping as Catherine from the original – she’s very taken with Henry and ready to learn from him but she’s got plenty of character of her own. McDermid has solved the problem of modern technology by siting the Abbey in a reception blackspot, and has used the current obsession for vampire novels very amusingly as a replacement for the ‘horrid novels’ of the original. (I hoped they might be real books – Poltergeist Plague of Pabbay, Vampires on Vatersay – but alas! It appears not.) McDermid is a Scottish author, of course, so gives an authentic and wryly humorous flavour of the hugely popular Edinburgh Festival, often as noted for the peculiarity of some of the productions as for their quality. Naturally Cat is mainly interested in the Book Festival and I doubt there is anyone better qualified to write about that event than Val McDermid.

Cat had convinced herself that in spite of Henry Tilney’s failure to appear at the Book Festival grounds, he would surely attend the dramatic adaptation of last year’s best-selling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For. Had they not touched on the subject of the fluency of women’s writing at Mrs Alexander’s dance class? Was this not the most sought-after ticket of the Fringe? And was not the Botanic Gardens the coolest of venues?

Royal Botanical Gardens dressed up for the Festival
Royal Botanical Gardens dressed up for the Festival

The book isn’t perfect and there are a few things that grated a bit. John Thorpe, a money-grasping buffoon in the original, appears to have turned into some kind of anti-Semitic fascist in this one, which seemed a little odd. The updating of the language has replaced Austen’s deliciously light wit with a heavy blunt instrument in too many places. And the big reveal at the end, as to why Henry’s father should suddenly have changed towards Cat, is the main disappointment of the book – McDermid’s choice of reason was sadly very typical of her and not at all within the spirit of the book, I felt – old or new version.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

However, overall I have to admit that I enjoyed this quite a lot and, while it will never compete with the original for any true Austen fan, it is a light, fun read with enough of an edge to avoid being just throwaway chick-lit. So this grumpy and disappointed reviewer is left with nothing to do but congratulate Val McDermid on achieving the impossible – making me give a positive review to one of these hideous Austen Project books. I shall now go off into a dark corner and pout.

PS Do trendy young things really say things are ‘Totes amazeballs’? Both Trollope and McDermid seem to think so. It’s rare for me to be glad I’m no longer groovy…

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine.

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