One of the most horrific features of the war that raged across the lands previously know as Yugoslavia during the 1990s was the scant attention paid to it in the rest of Europe. Yes, we were aware that something was going on, probably because our holidays to the region had had to be cancelled, but if challenged to say anything about the reasons behind the conflict or to distinguish between the warring parties most of us would have been silent. I am still at a loss to understand quite why that was the case, but Val McDermid’s latest standalone novel, The Skeleton Road, does, perhaps, go someway towards explaining the West’s blinkered response. As we get deeper into the back story of Dimitar Petrovic, an officer in the Croatian Army, and his partner, Professor Maggie Blake, it become clear that so much of what happened was the result of generations of bitter infighting and acts of sectarian revenge. It brought to mind something that I once heard said about the Northern Ireland conflict: if you think you understand what is going on in Northern Ireland then you don’t understand what is going on in Northern Ireland. I suspect the same is true of what was happening in Eastern Europe at that time. You had to be part of it and to have the cultural memory of the region to have any hope of even following, let alone understanding, what was going on.
However, McDermid’s story doesn’t begin on the streets of Dubrovnik but on the roof of a derelict Edinburgh building where, tucked away out of sight, a skeleton is found: a skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull. The investigation falls to DCI Karen Pirie, head of a Cold Crimes Unit, along with well-meaning but rather less well intellectually endowed, DC Jason Murray, predictably known as the Mint. Their enquiries lead them to Oxford and to the College set of Professor Maggie Blake, a lecturer in Geopolitics, where they hear for the first time the story of General Petrovic, the lover that Maggie thought had left her eight years previously to return to his Balkan roots.
Gradually, both women piece together the story of what has happened to Petrovic and why; Karen because it is her job and Maggie because she is now faced with the knowledge that there are things in her partner’s past about which she has had little, if any, understanding. As it becomes clear that the reason for the murder must lie somewhere in the maelstrom of the earlier conflict, the two women journey to the small village that was Dimitar’s childhood home and come face to face with what it means to be caught up in the centuries of revenge killings that mock the very concept of civilisation.
I normally very much enjoy McDermid’s standalone novels and certainly this one begins with real promise. However, the further in I got the more I started to feel as if what I was reading was a draft that still needed working on. To begin with, there are simply too many strands to the narrative. As well as those associated with Pirie and Blake there is also the Professor’s written account of her earlier time in Dubrovnik and a further story attached to two members of the war crimes tribunal who are tasked with finding out who is killing people about to be indicted before they can be brought to justice. This fourth strand never really gets integrated into the rest of the story and just adds characters and plot lines that confuse rather than elucidate the main thrust of the tale. It is redundant and what information it does contribute could have been included far more economically elsewhere.
This would then have given more narrative space to developing the main characters and their relationships, especially DCI Pirie. Karen Pirie has potential. She is a likeable character, her work is interesting and could easily have been developed into a series and the relationship between her and the Mint has the capacity to grow into one of fiction’s great investigative partnerships. But we simply don’t get enough page time with her and in what we are allowed narrative threads are started which then come to nothing. For example, the animosities between her and her immediate superior which ends one chapter on a very obvious cliffhanger is subsequently ignored. Why is it there?
Ultimately, I was left with the feeling that Pirie was little more than a means of allowing McDermid to make a point about the capacity that all humans have within them to respond viscerally at times of crisis. And it’s a fair point but in the end the way in which it is given voice left me unsatisfied and feeling that this is not one of McDermid’s best crafted novels and has perhaps been rushed out before it was really ready.