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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.