The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid - book review: An ingenious thriller with dark roots in the Balkan wars


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The Independent Culture

Close watchers of the crime fiction genre quickly become aware of trends, but that doesn't necessarily mean we groan at the appearance of newly minted clichés. Take the current superfluity of cold case investigations: it might be argued that there is an added layer of pleasure in seeing what the really ingenious crime writers can do to mark out their work from the competition. Val McDermid – who is nobody's fool – is clearly aware that the treatment of the years-old murder she hands to her new protagonist Karen Pirie must bristle with originality and ingenuity. McDermid aficionados will hardly be surprised to hear that that is precisely what she pulls off in The Skeleton Road.

The tenacious DCI Pirie is in charge of Police Scotland's cold case unit, struggling under straitened circumstances. A decayed body is found in a disused house in Edinburgh. At the same time, a man is killed entering his apartment in Crete. And people are dying because of grim secrets stretching from the Balkan conflict to the UK. But if this multi-stranded narrative sounds challenging, it should be remembered that McDermid always has the full measure of such things, and her large and colourful dramatis personae are marshalled with considerable authority.

The Skeleton Road takes the reader from the dreaming spires of Oxford and the streets of Edinburgh to the dangerous landscape of Croatia, as well as moving back through time to the 1990s when the bloody conflict in the former Yugoslavia was destroying the country, and war crimes of the most gruesome kind were rife.

However good Val McDermid's series featuring Tony Hill and Carol Jordan (and it's damned good), it might be argued that she has done some of her most striking work in books that are not forced to adhere to the strictures of a series – as is the case here. With considerable skill, McDermid juggles serious themes (from national genocide and ethnic tension to individual human betrayal) with great assurance, and there are set pieces – such as the siege of Dubrovnik – that are as good as anything she has written. Of course, it's possible that this might be described as a standalone only for as long as it is the sole outing for DCI Karen Pirie, but despite the preceding encomiums for non-series novels, readers will be more than happy to see Karen reappear – particularly as developments regarding her character towards the end of the book will have readers turning the pages at an ever faster rate.