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Book Author: Val McDermid

PAST LYING by Val McDermid: Book Review

It’s April, 2020 in Edinburgh, and the COVID era is just beginning.  So little is known about it–how long the lockdown will last, how to protect one’s self from getting the virus, exactly how it’s transmitted–that it’s a really strange time.

For Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie, life in lockdown is particularly challenging.  It’s obviously difficult, if not impossible, to conduct investigations when she can’t move around the city freely and interview people as is necessary in her job in the Historic Cases Unit (what in the United States are called cold cases).

Trying to deal with a difficult situation, she’s in a “bubble” with a sergeant from her team, Daisy Mortimer.  They’re living in the flat belonging to Hamish Mackenzie, the man Karen’s been dating for several months, which is definitely better than Karen living alone in her much smaller and less luxurious flat a few miles away.  But in addition to the worry about the virus, Karen is frustrated by the lack of work and a concern about Hamish that she’s unwilling to examine too closely.

A phone call from Jason Murray, another member of the HCU, may be the beginning of a new case.  Jason receives a call from a woman he knows at the National Library of Scotland.  She’s an archivist and has been going through boxes of material that belonged to Jake Stein, a crime writer who recently died.  He was very well known and respected until a sexual scandal derailed his career; although he continued to write, he never regained his former popularity.

The librarian tells Jason that in one of the many boxes that were donated to the library by Stein’s widow, she’s reading what appears to be a novel about the murder of Lara Hardie, a young woman who actually disappeared a year earlier and whose body was never found.  The book is “full of echoes of Lara Hardie’s story,” Jason is told.  “It’s really creepy.”

When Karen and Daisy receive a copy of the manuscript, they assume that it’s written by Stein, since it was in one of the boxes given to the library by Ros Stein, Jake Stein’s widow.  Strangely though, Karen thinks, it mentions his slumping book sales and the fact that his long-time publisher had dropped him, something she has trouble imagining the author would admit and want published.  But then, she continues musing to herself, the HCU team is at a disadvantage since the manuscript is incomplete.  Who knows how Stein would have ended the story?

At the same time, Karen and Jason are dealing with personal issues.  Karen is rethinking her relationship with Hamish, bothered by his casual disregard of the government mandated degrees of separation rules, while Jason is dealing with his mother’s hospitalization due to the illness.

Val McDermid brings back all the stresses and fears of the virus’ early days, when so much about it was unknown and the possibility of a vaccine lay in a possibly distant future.  Each character behaves according to their personality, and, as always, Ms. McDermid brings each one perfectly to life, along with the picture of a major city brought almost to its knees by a deadly illness.

You can read more about the author at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

1979 by Val McDermid: Book Review

When Val McDermid publishes a new novel, readers take notice.  And when she begins a new series, it’s time for readers to celebrate.

As is apparent from the title, 1979 is the year when we first encounter Allie Burns, a reporter at The Clarion, a Scottish daily, who is very much the low person on the newspaper’s totem pole.  However, the country is being inundated by snowstorms, strikes, and demands to become a separate nation, allowing Allie to view this as an opportunity to escape from writing “women’s stories” and to start reporting on the substantial issues of the day.

More from happenstance than planning, she and fellow reporter Danny Sullivan share a train compartment as each returns to Glasgow after celebrating Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year’s holiday, with their respective parents.  Danny is as eager as Allie to delve into more meaningful stories; his dream is to become an investigative crime reporter.  However, The Clarion already has a journalist covering that beat, and that man is not eager to share.

But Danny has found a lead that the other journalist doesn’t have.  While he was back home, the family’s conversation turned to taxes, and Danny’s older brother Joseph bragged that his clients at Paragon Investment Insurance were “bulletproof.”  His refusal to say more prods Danny into doing his own research into the company, and when he uncovers the malfeasance he realizes he has a major scandal to report.

Danny is torn, though, because he realizes that his brother is involved in the company’s illegal activities.  He convinces himself that he can write the story without involving Joseph, but that proves to be a major error on his part.

Allie, meanwhile, finds herself involved in the battle for Scottish devolution, or separation from Great Britain.  Those in favor want more power for local government, but in order for this to happen the vote has to pass by a majority and a majority of the electorate has to vote.

Not everyone is willing to wait for an election, though, and Allie overhears a conversation she believes may lead to a major story, one that involves a student group, IRA terrorists, and four men who seem determined to make the British government “pay attention the way they’ve been forced to do in Northern Ireland.”

Even though Allie and Danny are relatively new to their “beats” at The Clarion, they are not new to journalism and are able to recognize important stories when they see them.  What they may not be able to recognize is that important, powerful people don’t want to read about themselves in a national daily in a negative way.  And these people are more than willing to make certain that that doesn’t happen.

As always, Val McDermid’s characters jump off the page.  They bring readers back more than forty years to a period of great upheaval in Scotland, with divergent interests desperate to hold onto their power, no holds barred.

Val McDermid considers her work to be part of the “tartan noir” Scottish crime fiction genre.  She is the author of four other series that take place in that country, and she broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland.   You can read more about her at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE SKELETON ROAD by Val McDermid: Book Review

War has a long reach, way past the time of its supposed end.  This is made abundantly clear in Val McDermid’s latest mystery, The Skeleton Road.

Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie, head of the Historic Cases Unit in Edinburgh, is familiar with the Balkans War as something that happened years ago.  That much is true, since the war ended in 1995, but the memories of those who lived through the murders, rapes, and ethnic cleansings are still vivid.

A surveyor examining the roof of a building scheduled for demolition in Edinburgh finds a human skull hidden in a turret.  It becomes a case for the police when a bullet hole is discovered in the middle of the remains and a case for the HCU (what Americans call cold cases units) because forensic examination dates the skull as having been on the roof for about seven or eight years.

Maggie Blake is a professor of geopolitics at Oxford, an internationally known expert on the Balkans War.   She was teaching in Dubrovnik when she met Colonel Dimitar Petrovic, nicknamed Mitja, of the Croatian Army.  The two became lovers and spent the beginning of the war together in Dubrovnik, he doing intelligence work and she continuing to teach and write, until the situation in the city became so dangerous that he made her leave.  After the war they lived together in Oxford, until one day Mitja left their apartment and never returned.

Then the reader is introduced to two men working at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.  Alan Macanespie and Theo Proctor haven’t been overly diligent in doing their jobs, but their new boss is about to change that.  Wilson Cagney knows that the tribunal is about to wind up its work, and he wants to clear up all the loose ends.

What is apparent to Wilson is that there were too many cases where a suspected war criminal was about to be captured and tried when the suspect was assassinated.  Whether the killer is a mole in the tribunal or someone from the war seeking personal vengeance, Wilson doesn’t care.  He wants the assassin found before the tribunal is history.

Val McDermid weaves these three seemingly disparate stories into a totally cohesive novel.  The country formerly called Yugoslavia had a long and difficult history, with territories from the former Austro-Hungarian empire being joined, forcibly or otherwise, by the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.  The country was ruled by the fascists during World War II, then by the communists after the war.  But even seventy years after the end of the Second World War, memories of who was on what side linger, and the Croats and the Serbs remember particularly well.  And all roads seem to lead to the skull in Edinburgh.

The Skeleton Road is a wonderfully engaging read, combining not only an excellent plot but an important history lesson skillfully woven into the story.  The characters and their motivations are real, and the reader will be drawn into this novel from the beginning and will stay involved until the very last page.

You can read more about Val McDermid at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.