Out of Bounds by Val McDermid, review: cold case champion with a fondness for gin

Scottish detective tackles a 20-year-old unsolved murder, thanks to a teenage joyrider's DNA

Janette Wolf
Monday 12 September 2016 11:00

Val McDermid is one of those writers who have become synonymous with crime fiction. Her output is prolific, her titles laced with shiver-inducing words like “torment”, “graves”, “blood”, “bone” and “skeletons”. The content is clearly flagged; this is human nature at its darkest and most devious. Awards and best-sellers show that in this genre she has few equals.

Her latest title Out of Bounds might appear as if she is taking a step back from the gore. It sounds more meek than murderous. But relax, by page 3 we are galloping along a trail of destruction thanks to four booze-addled teenagers and a stolen Landrover Defender. The bodies are soon piling up.

Having been disentangled from the wreckage of the Defender one of the teenager's DNA reveals a family link to an unsolved rape and murder some 20 years before. From the hinterland of Scottish cold cases enters DCI Karen Pirie, insomniac scourge of villains who are foolish enough to think they have got away with murder.

DCI Pirie, on her fourth outing here, has an unorthodox approach to chasing evil-doers which frequently puts her at odds with her clunky male superiors. She is surrounded by dunderheads. Her second in command is particularly dense which she is, rather uncharitably, not slow to point out. But she has a soft spot for him because he buys her donuts and presents no threat. Her Assistant Chief Constable is a different kettle of fish and Pirie has her work cut out trying to sidestep the curve balls he lobs regularly in her direction.

The DNA lead is just one of a number of challenges that she must pursue. Her nocturnal rambles regularly take her past a group of Syrian refugees who gather together at night by an Edinburgh canal in the absence of anywhere more congenial in daylight hours, which adds a genuine note of pathos and timeliness. Finding somewhere for them to congregate is added to Pirie's to-do list, alongside tracking down the DNA suspect and unravelling another historic conundrum involving a planeful of luvvies who were vaporised when it mysteriously exploded midair several decades previously.

McDermid steers her Scottish detective clear of the rocky outcrops of cliche (Pirie eschews malt in favour of gin, in which she is something of an expert) and McDermid's grasp of police procedural is both slick and assured. Although she does gift the DCI with more than her fair share of obliging friends – there is the software expert, the forensic expert, the legal expert and the accommodating local politician (that's for the Syrians) – the sleuthing is satisfyingly involved and compelling. The DNA lead, for instance, immediately hits the buffers when the crumpled joyrider turns out to have been adopted. While her fondness for nicknames does grate, DCI Pirie is nonetheless a refreshing and convincing addition to the crime canon.

Out of Bounds by Val McDermid, Little Brown £18.99 (hardback)

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