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Complex history and investigations, successfully explained; not completely successfully a novel.

Skeleton RoadI had mixed reactions to Val McDermid’s cleverly titled novel, a murder investigation which leads to exploring the deep issues within global conflict, and how love, in its widest reaches, and revenge, are not by any means in opposition to each other, but bedfellows.

Karen Pirie, a remarkably and satisfyingly well-functioning DCI, (not a dysfunctional ‘maverick’!) who heads up the ‘Cold Cases’ Unit is investigating a dead body found in a rather surprising location. The case leads her to a meeting with Maggie Blake, an Oxford professor of geopolitics. Blake was involved in underground liberal/radical feminist education programmes, and war relief programmes in Croatia, during the Serbo-Croat and wider war taking place after the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Pirie and Blake are both strong, extremely likeable, plausible intelligent complex women, well-functioning, both have strong friendships, and either have, or had, good supportive relationships with their respective other halves. Neither are dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, during the wind-up of the war crimes investigations unit, a couple of lawyers are involved in another enquiry, as their brisk and dynamic new broom of a boss tries to uncover the reason why so many war criminals, with lengthy cases prepared against them, appear to meet underground rough justice and be offed before the slow legal wheels bring them to trial

The narrative effectively unfolds in 4 voices, and the book constantly cuts between them Blake has a third person voice in the present, though her history throughout the 90s is a first person narrative. It took me a little time to work out what was going on here, and why. Pirie’s voice (third person narrative) is the other major strand

The two ‘buffoons’ from ICTFY, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Macanespie and Proctor, are almost like a world weary, seedier version of those beloved characters originally appearing in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Charters and Caldicott, who then recycled into other films and even a TV series of their own. They add humour in their bumbling, often rather inept investigation and love/hate rivalry. Without these two, the story would be unremitting in its bleakness.

Former Yugoslavia 2008, Wiki Commons

Former Yugoslavia 2008, Wiki Commons

So – in effect, there are 3 investigations, plus a fourth, run by Pirie’s partner, also a cop, heading up a different division investigating domestic violence crimes.

My ‘with reservation’ reactions to The Skeleton Road, which did not really abate till around half way through the book, were caused by the problems of marrying excellent research and explanation into the novel form. In order to give the reader the information needed to understand the background, McDermid uses the device of having characters deliver lectures to each other, even when both of them know the same facts, and have drawn similar conclusions. This tricky, clumsy device is for our edification, and is not part of ‘narrative and character in relationship’

I was absolutely drawn into ‘being clearly taught complex information and the history of the conflict within former Yugoslavia’, (McDermid’s journalistic background and ability to explain complexity clearly much in evidence) but aware that there were sections which were breaking the back of the needs of a novel . The narrative and the psychology of character were ring-fenced and to a certain extent on hold as these were forced to carry the burden of reader instruction.

In the Balkans, the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. History and geography have constantly collided with the human capacity for cruelty in those disputed territories

And then, finally, came a tipping point. Pirie and Blake eventually connect and pool their knowledge, skills and professional abilities, as for different reasons they are drawn to uncover something in the very dark history of that ‘former Yugoslavia’ and the conflict after (and before) Yugoslavia came into being. From that point, the novel as a novel, where the ‘about’, the narrative, and the psychology of believable character and action work beautifully together, held me fast.

I do, strongly, recommend this, even if the earlier parts of the novel, though excellent,
are not quite ‘excellently a novel’

Smiles all round … Val McDermid at the official naming of the new mortuary. Photograph: Dave Martin/Fotopress Dundee (published in The Guardian and appears as 'for reuse' on advanced search)

Smiles all round … Val McDermid at the official naming of the new mortuary. Photograph: Dave Martin/Fotopress Dundee (published in The Guardian and appears as ‘for reuse’ on advanced search)

I received this as a copy for review purposes, from the publisher, Little, Brown via NetGalley. My digital review copy had quite a lot of awkward typographical errors, which I assume will have been eradicated in the paid for download

I’m grateful to fellow blogger FictionFan whose review of this led to my scurry-to-read

The Skeleton Road Amazon UK
The Skeleton Road Amazon USA