Cold case detective Karen Pirie started life as a secondary character in The Distant Echo. She popped up again in Fife-set A Darker Domain, and then Val McDermid discovered, as she has described in interviews, that Karen’s voice kept talking to her, prompting more books. Now the gin-lover with no regard for fashion – promoted to Detective Chief Inspector and relocated to Edinburgh – is on her fifth instalment in Broken Ground.
Saddled with a new team member, DS Gerry McCartney, whom she doesn’t trust and who comes with an attitude problem, Karen and sidekick DC Jason “The Mint” Murray plough on with the Historic Cases Unit’s latest inquiry, a search for a violent rapist. Meanwhile, in a peat bog in Wester Ross, Alice Somerville and her husband Will, with the help of local croft owner Hamish, are digging for treasure hidden by Alice’s grandfather. Uncovering what was buried in 1944 fills the three with excitement – but then they find a body alongside the two crates... What was in them that could have been worth killing for?
Forensic anthropologist Dr River Wilde is called in by the Highlands police to examine the body in the bog. He’s neither ancient history nor a wartime relic, Dr Wilde tells Karen on the phone: “He’s wearing a pair of Nikes. By my reckoning that makes him one of yours.” As Karen visits the crime scene to take over the case, McDermid takes us back to 1944 and starts to reveal the story from the other end, switching between the two periods, and dropping just enough breadcrumbs so a careful reader is half a step ahead of Karen in slotting in the jigsaw puzzle pieces together.
As well as the search for the rapist and the Highlands bog body, a conversation overheard by Karen in an Edinburgh cafe turns, tragically, into a live case. Her theory about what really happened to those involved is a reminder that McDermid never takes the obvious path when knotting together a plot, or a lazy shortcut when creating characters.
Karen herself is quick to frustrate and slow to trust, cop instincts to the fore – but unlike those who see a move to HCU as a punishment, to her it is a vocation, giving closure to families left to suffer for years. Her sense of right and wrong is also informed by her past relationship with fellow officer Phil, whose death she grieves in private while hiding her emotions in public. But it’s not only Karen – every character who walks across the page is deftly drawn, whether it’s the the nosy neighbour DS McCartney speaks to, the grief-stricken lawyer Donalda or a terrified and vulnerable witness.
Karen finally makes her arrest and closes the case. But there are plenty of loose ends left to tantalise readers hoping for another instalment.
What lingers are less the central story and sub-plots, exciting and satisfying though they are – it’s the small details and the characters: Karen learning how to live with her grief; The Mint’s efforts to be a better copper; the descriptions of landscapes and weather. These are all reasons why Broken Ground will find a home on my bookshelf, awaiting a re-read – and another, and another.
Karen Pirie may have become a series character by accident, but she has grown into a vital one. Broken Ground is another stellar read from McDermid, and further evidence that her “Queen of Crime” status will not be challenged any time soon.
Broken Ground, by Val McDermid, Little, Brown, 422pp, £18.99. Val McDermid is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 21 August