If Agatha Christie is the queen of crime writing, then Val McDermid is surely her lady in waiting. She’s written 28 novels and has topped the bestseller list so many times that she deserves a free season ticket. McDermid is best known for her Wire in the Blood series, featuring clinical psychologist Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan, although she deserted her genre of choice earlier this year to publish a retelling of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Now she’s back in her comfort zone, with a standalone novel set in Edinburgh that centres on a cold case investigation. DCI Karen Pirie, head of the Historic Cases Unit is called to the scene when a skeleton is found on the roof of a soon to be demolished building. The skull sports a neat bullet hole, and Karen and her sidekick, DC Jason ‘the Mint’ Murray, see a world of possibilities opening before them when they learn the old John Drummond School was popular with free climbers – people who like to illegally scale the outside of buildings without the aid of a rope.
So who is the mystery man? Forensics soon come up with estimates of age and ethnicity. He was in his mid- to late-40s and from Eastern Europe, but it is piece of plastic found in the remains of his rotted trousers that could well prove the turning point. The bog standard hotel key card, with no distinguishing features has an important part to play in this story.
The investigation takes Karen to Oxford, where she meets Professor Maggie Blake, an expert in geopolitics who has a special interest in the Balkans. She worked there during turbulent times in the 1990s, and it was there that she met Dimitar Petrovic, known as Mitja, the man who would later become her husband. They were very much in love and happily living in Oxford, until Mitja disappeared without warning eight years ago.
Thus the story takes on another strand, as Maggie compiles a diary of her days in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. And not content with giving us Maggie and Karen’s stories, there’s another plotline in the shape of Alan Macanespie and Theo Proctor, low level lawyers working for the International Crime Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia who suspect that Petrovic was behind a number of timely executions of ex-Yugoslav war criminals about to be brought to justice. That theory could be shot to pieces if it is their man on the rooftop though – so who could be behind the killings?
Confused? I have to say I was at times. I’d be happily following a developing line of enquiry when the action switched to another aspect of the tale. This makes it all rather bitty and spoils the flow of the story.
The Skeleton Road is a well researched and painstakingly plotted novel, but something is missing. There is an abundance of historic detail which will appeal to some readers but not to this one. And I had worked out whodunit before I passed the halfway point.
There are some well worked characters here and a finely honed sense of place as we traverse from Edinburgh to Oxford, to Croatia and back again, but somehow that wasn’t enough. I’m a huge McDermid fan but sadly I wouldn’t count this book among my favourites.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars