The Skeleton Road
First up, some clarification. THE SKELETON ROAD is being marketed as a stand-alone work. It is not. While Val McDermid’s latest novel certainly stands well on its own, it is the second of her books (after 2009’s A DARKER DOMAIN) to feature Karen Pirie, a Scottish cold case detective. This is important because 1) those with long memories who have been reading McDermid’s work might think they are experiencing déjà vu all over again when they encounter Pirie again for the first time, and 2) those who read THE SKELETON ROAD will want more of Pirie, and immediately.
McDermid, as is the case with the majority of her novels, gives the reader more than a standard whodunit. THE SKELETON ROAD has elements of a classic mystery, but also, at least for the first half of the book, creates a “whoisit” puzzle and incorporates a “whydunit” angle into what follows on the way to solving the mystery. The main story kicks off nicely with the accidental discovery of a long-decomposed body concealed on the rooftop of an abandoned building in Edinburgh. McDermid gives us an interesting look at police procedural in general and forensic science in particular as Pirie, utilizing resources at her disposal that Dick Tracy could only dream of, slowly but methodically establishes the age of the deceased at the time of death and, with a bit of computerized legerdemain, links the remains to a (somewhat) dormant bank account and a hotel room.
"[McDermid] keeps things moving quickly, switching points of view on a regular basis while never allowing any of the plot threads that she so skillfully weaves to become tangled."
The narrative is not all police work, however. Pirie’s investigation dovetails nicely into a separate investigation by two government attorneys who are on an odd couple do-or-die mission. They have been tasked to discover who is systematically killing Serbian war criminals who are delaying the ultimate justice they have earned or avoiding it altogether. They suspect that it is the work of Dimitar Petrovic, a Croatian army officer who may be exacting a strong measure of long-delayed revenge over atrocities committed during the Third Balkan War. Petrovic, who abruptly left his paramour --- a college professor regarded as an expert in the conflict --- some eight years before, has seemingly returned. But why now?
Pirie gets drawn into the investigation when the identity of the long-decomposed corpse is ultimately revealed. Her quest to identify the killer takes her to an all-but-abandoned village in Croatia where a somewhat unexpected source directs her back to Great Britain. Here, a long-festering secret is played out even as revenge continues to take its toll.
McDermid defies expectations and stereotypes throughout THE SKELETON ROAD, touching briefly on such contemporary issues as Scottish secession and war crimes. She keeps things moving quickly, switching points of view on a regular basis while never allowing any of the plot threads that she so skillfully weaves to become tangled. What is perhaps most noteworthy about the book, though, is its unpredictability. Even if you guess one or more elements of what lies at the foundation of this mystery, you will never predict them all, or the shocking ending, where everything goes bottoms up while creating the possibility of a sequel or two. This is a work that should please McDermid’s army of stalwart fans while attracting a legion of new ones.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 5, 2014