A Darker Domain (Karen Pirie 2) by Val McDermid

Scabs and kidnappers…

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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…

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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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Out of Bounds (Karen Pirie 4) by Val McDermid

Murder in the family…

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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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