Out Of Bounds by Val McDermid | Little, Brown, £18.99
‘Bloody writers, Karen thought. Too lazy to figure out the legal way of doing things so they make it up as they go along”. It is testament to Val McDermid’s skill that, shortly after DCI Pirie, head of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit, makes this observation, the novelist is indulging in the very fictive behaviour which sparked the angry aside, and yet the reader is compelled forward nevertheless.
It is equally true that McDermid is obsessed with the “legal way of doing things”: forensics, the varying interpretations of the law (this novel is particularly good on the so-called “conflict of rights”), the use of technologies, corroboration, how much circumstantial evidence tips the balance and the relationship between making a charge and securing a prosecution.
This is the fourth of the Karen Pirie series, and McDermid’s 30th novel. Much as I love the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan books, the Kate Brannigan novels and the series with Lindsay Gordon, these novels always have an especial appeal because they are set in Scotland. McDermid is precise but never pedantic in her descriptions of the various locales – the novel ricochets around Edinburgh, Fife, Glasgow, Linlithgow and Galashiels with an equally observant trip to London. There is always a frisson of somebody just getting it so right. Yes, the Thai restaurant near Waverley Station really does have Pad Kraprao Haggis Kai Tor on the menu.
This latest novel knits and knots together three quite different plots. Walking the streets in Edinburgh with insomnia and grief, Pirie is working on a case where a drunken teenage joyrider’s DNA is a partial match for an unsolved rape and murder in Glasgow years beforehand. The only problem, as she swiftly discovers, is that the young man was adopted. As she makes tentative attempts at friendship with an old friend who has moved back to manage social work in Fife, she comes across another case. The obnoxious DI Noble is mishandling a case into what he assumes is the suicide by gunshot of a paranoid and distressed man. Pirie has an inkling it may not be suicide at all, especially as the man’s mother died in what was assumed to be the terrorist bombing of a private plane – although no terrorists ever claimed responsibility. “There were lots of things that ran in families, but murder wasn’t one of them”, she maintains – and is upbraided by another character who points out that in Rwanda and Bosnia and Syria it certainly did.
This introduces the third line of the plot. During her nocturnal perambulations, she has encountered a group of Syrian refugees, standing around a fire. They are not up to no good: they are simply lonely and have no place to congregate. They may have been chefs and dentists and accountants.
The three plotlines are interwoven with consummate elegance, and ideas of what we inherit and what we acquire, how environments change us and how we are predisposed to behaviours, who we are and what we call home resonate between the different strands. The prose has a kind of gallus capacity to twist a cliché into something new – a little white lie, in Karen’s book, is neither little nor white; an interview turns out to be an “unlucky break”; “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” she instructs. The relationship between Pirie and “the Mint” – DC Jason Murray – crackles with both condescension and grudging affection (I’m sure other readers will do fantasy casting for a TV series). The supporting characters are equally well drawn, and one can’t really deviate from Pirie’s own assessment – “Her world was full of bolshie women, and she loved it”. The back-and-forths with her pusillanimous boss, as she deflates his attempts to undermine her, are a particular joy.
The crime novel, even when marbled with dry wit, is a serious proposition. Here, the aforementioned “conflict of rights” is explored with admirable subtlety: on one hand, allowing the police to see the adoption records might right a historical wrong, on the other, the person in question has a right to privacy and, furthermore, is not legally capable of consent (and the question would become moot were they to die). The law has no obligation to prosecute for any number of moral failings. Justice, closure, reparation and conviction are all gloriously out of sync. The novel is firm on some matters – one character says of a coffee shop: “When we grew up we thought Gold Blend was the height of sophistication. But it’s like gay rights. We’ve come an amazing distance.” In other areas it is far more queasily ambiguous. As with McDermid’s previous novel, there is a “bonus short story”; a gruesomely delightful little piece that would not have disgraced Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected.
I zipped through this and wondered, given that the plot involves the train to London and there is an aside about Pirie being “settled back with the new Lee Child”, whether McDermid’s publicists might not offer free copies to East Coast passengers for a day. It would amuse, perplex and inform the customers, and might even divert them from the awful egg sandwiches and the inevitable delays around Redcar Junction.