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Posts Tagged ‘Scottish detective’

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.







THE DAUGHTER OF TIME by Josephine Tey: Book Review

Josephine Tey is an author who is not too familiar to American readers of crime novels. She was 56 when she died in 1952 and had written only a handful of novels, but every one of them is worth reading or, in my case, re-reading.

Elizabeth Macintosh, Tey’s real name, used an “old proverb” that can’t be found anywhere, according to a review of Tey’s works in the Washington Post, for the title of this book.   “Truth is the daughter of time” is the saying, and I must admit I’m not sure exactly what it means.  Perhaps it means that “truth will tell,” which would certainly fit with the novel’s story.

Alan Grant, the British police detective who is the hero in several of Ms. Tey’s novels, is, as the English say, “in hospital” with a broken leg. Cranky and bored, he welcomes an old friend, Marta Hallard, a well-known stage actress, who brings him a pile of posters from the British Museum.   Each one is a portrait of a murderer or evil-doer.  In that pile is a portrait of a man whom Grant believes doesn’t belong there, and Grant is famous at Scotland Yard for his ability to “pick them at sight.”  The portrait is of Richard The Third, infamous king of England, best known for killing his two nephews in the Tower of London to preclude any claims they might have to be king.

The more Grant looks at the portrait, the more he is certain that the man with the sensitive face could not be the monster that English history says he is.  So obsessed does he become with this portrait that Marta brings a young American friend of hers, Brent Carradine, to do a bit of research for him to find out more about the king.  And the more deeply Grant and Carradine get into it, the more certain they both become that “history is bunk” and that Richard had no reason to kill his nephews and didn’t do it.

There’s a great deal of history in this book that apparently is known to the English but totally unknown to most Americans.  Names such as Eleanor Neville, the Cat and the Rat, and Lord Morton of “Morton’s Fork,” for example, are seemingly as well known in that country at Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross would be to students of American history.  But Tey explains her country’s history beautifully, and what might in other hands have become a dry treatise is instead a wonderful look into kings, queens, and court villains.

Fighting the battle at Bosworth in 1485 between the Yorks (Richard’s family) and the Lancastrians (followers of Henry Tudor, soon to become the first Tudor king), Richard was defeated and killed.  How amazing is it that Tey brings not only Richard but all of the members of his family and his court to life more than 500 years after his death?

Unfortunately, Josephine Tey doesn’t appear to have a web page, but you can read about her at