MurderInk: Womans work
Detective Karen Pirie gets the job done in Val McDermid's latest thriller

MurderInk: Womans work
Jeffrey Mannix - 01/05/2017

Val McDermid is arguably the doyenne of Great Britain crime fiction, with 11 million books sold in 30 languages since 1987. She has set the standard for rich, plot-driven mysteries of the peculiar Scottish frankness with muscular characters. A month ago Atlantic Monthly Press released her 30th book, Out of Bounds – yet another comfort read with which to sit warm and cozy in your favorite reading place, with a cup of tea while snow pelts your windows and the world is at a dead stop. McDermid novels are winter reads, never suitable for the indifferent days of summer when the edgy mysteries are more suited for listless moods and enervated bodies.

Out of Bounds features Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie, head of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit in Edinburgh. It’s a low-rung functionary on the mind-numbing lookout for shreds of evidence to reinvestigate cold cases that previously led nowhere or were subject to shoddy police procedure. Pirie is chief over only one detective, Constable Jason Murray. Both good cops are singled out for their ethical vigor with dead-end jobs in a basement storeroom in Gayfield Square Station, equipped with a couple of telephones, two government-issued steel desks, marred beige metal filing cabinets and boxes with dusty, long-abandoned case files, some from even before they were born.

On the particular Monday morning that opens the book, Pirie answers a phone call from a Sgt. Torrance in the traffic division. He’s calling to say that over the weekend there was a bad highway crash of joyriding kids in a stolen Land Rover. It killed two and left the teen driver in a coma with a blood alcohol level five times over the limit. And, oh yeah, they got from the kid a DNA sample linked to a 20-year-old murder case. The boy, it happens, is only 17.

Pirie and Murray come alive with this news, holding out the DNA match from a joyriding “gobshite’’ named Ross Garvie with collected DNA from the rape and murder of 24-year-old hairdresser Tina McDonald in Glasgow city center on May 17, 1996. DNA evidence is useful; irrefutable only if there is a corresponding match on file to reveal the donor. In the McDonald villainy, detectives frustrated their careers by finding incriminating DNA evidence but no match in all the databases they combed.
Now, 20 years after McDonald’s death, investigators are retired and drinking to forget their grim careers. Long after anyone held a shred of hope for accountability, a glimmer of justice shows faintly from an unlucky relative of the man who stole the life of the young woman, who was out on the town one night with her girlfriends. He walked away leaving his entire family tree, but without his name and address.

McDermid creates these dense plots and people you can get a scent from. She’s a pro, and from the short synopsis above, you can see how a lot can be made out of a peculiar, mysterious circumstance. But McDermid is better than just fleshing out a mapped storyline, and Karen Pirie is far more skilled than to be simply tracking down one lost, forgotten murderer. It seems that about the same time as the McDonald murder, a small plane carrying four passengers including a former Northern Ireland government minister, was blown up midair presumably by Republican terrorists. A connection emerges as Pirie pursues the resuscitated McDonald investigation that is clearly off limits to her, bringing Pirie and Police Scotland itself too close to the flames of pitiless international conspirators and disgrace-prone political careers of untouchables.

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