Scottish, vocally lesbian, proud financial supporter of her local football club, crime writer extraordinaire, Val McDermid is not only different but a cut above.
In the prologue to her thriller The Skeleton Road, a handsome older man sits, spending his evening watching the tourists in the Cretan port, Chania. Finishing his Metaxa, he slips quietly away to his apartment. As he opens his door, he hears a voice speak a name he hasn’t heard for many a year. Turning, he dies as a razor sharp knife flashes out, “…a single death that doesn’t begin to atone for all those other deaths.”
In Edinburgh, Scottish DCI Karen Pirie is head of the Historic Cases Unit. When a skeleton of a man dead between five and ten years is discovered, she and her team are called in. A single bullet hole in the forehead, slightly one side of centre, bears mute testimony to how he died. Execution, not suicide. The location of the body, within one of four ornamental turrets on the corners of a crenellated Gothic tower, generates an amount of dialogue among the investigators, not least due to the commanding height above ground and how it got there.
There are links to the Balkans, with mention of a member of Radovan Karadzic’s legal team, “…up to his armpits in the dead of Srebrenica”; the skeleton’s dental work is Eastern European in origin; we are taken back to the killing fields of the former Yugoslavia; we read detail of ‘ethnic cleansing’; plus a great deal more. And what of Oxford Professor Maggie Blake or, especially, her ex-lover Dimitar Petrovic, ‘Mitja,’ who followed her home from the Balkans before again leaving without a word.
Meanwhile, a new head of department admonishes a couple of Foreign Office lawyers to renew their efforts into the investigation of a series of deaths among the ‘evil butchers of Kosovo’, men who had changed their names and rewritten their identities and disappeared into the world at large. The more they investigate, the more certain they are that the man they seek is ex-General Dimitar Petrovic, Croatian Army.
It is here that the author’s interest in and depth of research into matters about which she writes becomes important. An explanation of this dedication to her work is immediately evident on reading another of her books, Forensics, The Anatomy Of Crime. Both books, The Skeleton Road and Forensics, were published in 2014. One is fiction, the other a look into the scientific world. We know a little about its operation from shows such as Silent Witness or even CSI, with people in spotless white coats in bright, clean new laboratories – an essential part of the work, as is the field work portrayed on the screen – but the reality is generally not a ‘eureka’ moment so much as grinding out the hard yards.
No matter how convincing it may seem, all such evidence must be tested in court, argued by barristers for both sides. The prime bastion of British justice, like ours, is that the prosecution must present a case that is watertight, prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, “Unlike the prosecution…the defence only has to introduce doubt to win.”
Forensics, although dealing with some gruesome aspects of the work, should not be considered a heavy read although it alternates between historical references, actual cases, the introduction of theories (many of which were developed into the science used in the real world today), scientific experiments and the many dedicated – often fanatical – people who developed concept into irrefutable evidence. Or is it ever that? The book explains this very well.
So interested in forensics is McDermid she established an online course in 2015 available to participants worldwide to provide education in the subject. Set up and run in conjunction with Professor Sue Black, forensic anthropologist at Dundee University, it gave entrants the opportunity to solve a murder written by the author specifically for the course. The project was a resounding success.
I especially enjoy another aspect of Val McDermid’s work, the way she draws her characters. As an example, her accuracy is summed up to colloquial perfection in the words of an antipodean digital forensics expert in The Skeleton Road. I laughed aloud at the character Tamsin Martineau’s perfectly contextual use of a great Australian integrated adjective, “Anyway, all this is acaf*ckingdemic.” It is a prime example of how believable are her people.
To be credible, crime fiction has to be set as close to real life as a writer can make it (although there is a case, too, that real life is often stranger than fiction). Whatever, it can be stated with utter conviction that a book by Val McDermid is absorbing and has an entirely plausible storyline.
Oh, just one thing more: don’t try to double-guess her. Rarely will you succeed.