The Skeleton Road ~ Val McDermid

51FXygpW68LOne 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.

Cross and Burn ~ Val McDermid

9781408704554I’ve just read a very interesting review of Ian Rankin’s new Rebus novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible; interesting because the reviewer, clearly a Rebus fan, is concerned that in parts the writing simply doesn’t have the sharpness normally expected of Rankin’s prose. Now, you have to wonder if Rankin himself isn’t aware of this because he has been quoted as saying that he is going to take a year off and that we cannot expect a book from him ready for next Christmas’s market.  Rankin, of course, has the clout to be able to tell his publishers this without there being any apocalyptic come back.  No one is going to cancel his contract.  Very very respectfully, I would like to suggest that the same is true of Val McDermid and that a year off publishing if not to recharge batteries but at least to be able to take a little longer over each book wouldn’t be a bad thing.  Her readers might get a bit edgy but better that than leave them feeling, as I do, that your latest book somehow just doesn’t quite work.

Of course, as an avid crime fiction reader I am glad to see Tony Hill and Carol Jordan back, the more so because of where we left them at the end of The Retribution, a book that scarred me to the point where I don’t think I will ever be able to read it again, even knowing, as I now do, what the followup to their personal split and Carol’s resignation from the force turns out to be.  And let that stand as a warning, because I don’t think I can write about why I have doubts about this latest novel in the series without having to resort to at least some spoilers.

First of all, to go back to the Rankin review, there are definitely instances where the writing in Cross and Burn just isn’t as tight as I have come to expect.  On a number of occasions I had to go back and reread a passage just to be sure what it meant and that not because of the vocabulary that was used but because of the way in which sentences were structured.  I don’t expect this of McDermid.  Rather I expect to be gleefully reading passages aloud because of the wonderful way in which she has brought about a particular turn of phrase.

More worrying though is the fact that this seems to me to be a very mediocre plot line from a writer who can normally put the reader through more twists and turns and unexpected revelations than you can count but who always ties up the loose ends in a way that leaves you gasping.

Now, I accept that this could not have been the easiest of books to plot. With Tony and Carol estranged and Carol out of  the front line, McDermid had to contrive a storyline that would still meet the requirements of a crime novel and yet at the same time take their relationship forward, even if it that should mean confirming their separation forever.  She handles the first by bringing to the fore Paula McIntyre, Jordan’s DC and now promoted as DS to the position of bagman for DCI Alex Fielding.  Think you’ve heard that last name before?  You probably have, but I’ll come back to that later. Paula is the fictional lead in the search for a killer who appears to be targeting women who look like Carol, including a friend of Paula and her partner, Elinor.  One of the better aspects of the book is the way in which Paula and Elinor find themselves forced into a position where they have to care for Torin, the fourteen year old son of missing Bev McAndrew. This is a real traumatised fourteen year old, not a stereotyped badmouthing teenager and I hope we see more of him in future books.  The twist that forces Carol to face Tony again is that he is the one arrested for the murders and it is only by bringing the two together that Paula can see any way of preventing what she is certain is a miscarriage of justice. Because, be in no doubt, DCI Fielding is heading for top and she certainly isn’t going to let something as trifling as a closer examination of the evidence stand in her way.

My problem with all of this is that the secondary plot strand diminishes the attention given to the main plot, namely what the murderer is up to, and that means that it becomes very tame in comparison with other McDermid plot lines.  I will be amazed if you haven’t pinpointed who the villain of the piece is long before he’s apprehended.  And while that is sometimes exactly what you’re supposed to do, I don’t think that’s the case here.  There are too many other individuals slotted in as possible substitutes for that to be happening.  But it’s obvious that they are possible substitutes, just as it’s obvious why Carol suddenly acquires a dog.  If you haven’t realised what Flash’s part is going to be in all this two hundred pages before she plays that part you really are new to the crime scene.  As a dog lover I am delighted to see Carol with a canine substitute for the ageing cat, Nelson, but Flash’s role is a cliché and McDermid doesn’t normally deal in clichés.

So, all in all, not what I expect from a Tony Hill/Carol Jordan book and while I am always glad to spend time in their company I was disappointed to find my attention being so frequently drawn away from the story by problems with the writing and the level of plotting.  I come back to my frequent cry, aimed at the publishers rather than the writers: we don’t need a book every year, we need a book when it is ready.

Oh and DCI Fielding?  If you watched the television series that was drawn from these books, Wire in the Blood, you will remember that half way through Carol Jordan left and was replaced by none other than that same DCI Alex Fielding.  Given the part that the DCI plays in this novel I can’t help thinking that she wasn’t a replacement of whom Ms McDermid approved!

Weekly Fragments ~ November 5th

tumblr_lptmh1EY1E1r1sle6o1_500A number of my blogging friends regularly post a piece at the end of each month looking back over their recent reads and projecting forthcoming books for the following four weeks.  It’s not something I’ve ever thought of doing myself, mostly because I rely to a large extent on libraries for my reading material and I can never predict what (if any) books are going to turn up.  However, over on her blog Of Books and Bicycles, Rebecca has a recent post where she looks forward to her forthcoming reading week and that strikes me as a very good idea, if only because it might make me organise my mind enough to recognise the difference between what needs to be read and what I want to read and to be realistic about the time I have available for either.

And, I have to say that the week ahead looks crowded!

Yesterday saw the end of the month from hell in which I had to lead the discussion in all three of my reading groups.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love belonging to reading groups.  I never fail to learn something new about the books through discussion and I suppose that to some extent they are a substitute for the days when I was leading reading groups in university classes.  Officially they were called seminars, but if they work properly reading groups is what they should be.  However, taking on three new books in short order was silly and I’ve already taken steps to ensure that the same thing won’t happen next year.

The most recent discussion was of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer winning novel, Middlesex, which I read when it first came out but which was new to everyone else in the group.  I have to say I chose this with some trepidation because there are a number of people in that particular group who are very traditionalist in their view as to what a novel should be like and I knew that they were going to find not only the subject matter but also the style very challenging.  However, I happen to think that Middlesex is one of the great novels of the last decade and anyway, the teacher in me still thinks that people should have their reading horizons challenged, so I carried on regardless.  In fact, only two of the group had a problem with the book and the rest couldn’t sing its praises loudly enough. Almost everyone had had difficulties getting to grips with the blend of the post-modern and the traditional, especially as it manifests itself in Cal’s very particular narrative voice, but once they’d tuned in to what Eugenides is doing there they were fine.

Even though that may be out of the way, belonging to three groups means that the next read is always on the horizon and so one of the books I need to read this week is Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared. I’m promised by everyone I know who has read this that I am going to really enjoy it, which is reassuring because it definitely isn’t something I would have picked up for myself.  The other ‘needful’ book is Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane which is the set text for next week’s lectures on the MOOC course I’m taking on Historical Fiction.  The portents aren’t so good where this is concerned.  Two of the friends with whom I’m taking the course have already had problems with the novel and I think we’re all beginning to wonder whether the books chosen aren’t a reflection of the authors willing to lead seminars rather than texts that illustrate the best available in current historical fiction.  It’s a shame because the lectures from the professor are very good indeed and he has tried to be innovative in the way he’s set up the course. It’s certainly better than any of the other literature MOOCs I’ve taken.  But, it does show how difficult creating a new module from scratch can be and just how many are the pitfalls you have to avoid.

My ‘want to’ reads all arrived from the library yesterday and they’re all crime novels.  I have these for three weeks and so I must try and limit myself to just one a week, because I know what I’m like when I get my head down in crime fiction – I’m unlikely to surface until it’s finished.  So, this week’s treat is the new Tony Hill and Carol Jordan novel from Val McDermid, Cross and Burn.  I think the highest praise I can offer McDermid is to say that I love her stand alone novels as much as I do her series books, which suggests that it is her writing rather than her characters that I respond to.  This is my last thing at night book when I have finished everything I need to read for the day and can reward myself with sheer indulgence.  For the rest of the day I have given it to The Bears to hide.  I know my own limitations where temptation is concerned!

The other ‘literary-type’ occasions that this week holds include two visits to the theatre.  On Saturday I’m going to the Rep to see a staged version of The Anatomy of Melancholy, which some friends saw in London and have throughly recommended and then on Sunday I’m going to a screening of the National Theatre’s The Habit of Art.  This got rather mixed reviews when it was on in London, but it stars the late Richard Griffiths and I can’t pass up any last opportunity to see him at work.  Two days out at the weekend is going to seriously curtail my reading time so I may have to report a level of failure this time next week, but best foot forward.