The Skeleton Road, the latest standalone novel from Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, combines compelling characters and a cracking pace with an intriguing story that both entertains and enlightens.
The story opens with a skeleton being found in the top of an abandoned Gothic building in Edinburgh, a bullet hole in its skull. The corpse carries no ID, only a hotel keycard in its decaying pocket.
Because it is a skeleton, the case comes under the responsibility of Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of the Historic Cases Unit, who works with the wonderfully named Dr River Wilde, a forensic anthropologist, to try and identify the body.
Elsewhere, Professor Maggie Blake, an expert in geopolitics at Oxford University, is reluctantly celebrating her fiftieth birthday, still mourning the disappearance, eight years earlier of her lover, Dimitar Petrovic, aka Mitja, a Croatian army general and later special adviser to NATO forces. Maggie and Mitja lived through the siege of Dubrovnik in the early 1990s and were living together the UK at the time of his disappearance.
Meanwhile, war criminals in hiding are being assassinated before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY) can bring them to justice. The new boss at ICTFY, wants whoever’s behind the summary executions brought to justice and pressgangs two underperforming staffers Macanespie and Proctor into an investigation. Maggie’s friend, Tessa Minogue, a Human Rights lawyer involved with the ICTFY, thinks Mitja is responsible for the assassinations, which began shortly after he disappeared. But could the man Maggie loved have left her to become a vigilante?
McDermid acknowledges the inspiration of two women behind this story, one of whom, Dr Kathy Wilkes, like the character of Prof Maggie Blake, ran clandestine philosophy courses behind the Iron Curtain and was caught up in the siege of Dubrovnik; the other, Prof Sue Black, a leading forensic anthropologist, was deployed to Kosovo to investigate atrocities in the wake of the Croatian War. That McDermid has taken the experiences of these two friends and transformed them into a genuinely thrilling read is a measure of her crime writerly brilliance.
The plot unfolds through multiple points of view, the minor characters as skillfully drawn as those whose voices narrate the main plot strands, DCI Karen Pirie, Prof Maggie Blake and bored ICTFY bureaucrat Macanespie. The timeframe moves from the present back to 1990s Dubrovnik via the notes Maggie decides to write down, ‘to revisit her history and perhaps find a different angle, a new truth.’
Maggie is poignantly drawn as an academic who has loved and lost, the stiff upper lip she displays in public masking her private hurt. DCI Karen Pirie, who first appeared in 2008’s A Darker Domain, makes a welcome comeback, a character in the tradition of Miss Marple, who is sharper than she first appears and all the more effective for being underestimated. Macanespie is likewise believable as the bureaucrat motivated as much by self-preservation as by justice.
McDermid’s willingness to put her characters in peril and her refusal to flinch in the face of their pain heightens the suspense.
At the same time, I learned a great deal more about the war in the Balkans than I knew before reading The Skeleton Road. And for me, there’s nothing more satisfying than a crime read that teaches me something about the world while taking me on a wild ride.
How justice is served, and the difference between vengeance and justice, are among the themes underpinning Skeleton Road. When I asked McDermid at a recent Sisters in Crime event in Melbourne about the tendency for her characters to resort to vigilantism and rough justice, she argued that her novels leave readers with a sense of justice having been done, which is often missing from real life.
Whether the ending of Skeleton Road leaves you satisfied or wanting may well depend on your own definition of justice. But I guarantee you’ll enjoy getting there.
The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid (2014) is published by Little Brown.