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Val McDermid’s heroine is no Jessica Fletcher — and that’s a good thing

The heroine of Val McDermid’s new novel is a wee bit of a crank. Detective Inspector Karen Pirie can be sarcastic and pushy; she has a casual disdain for her employer, the police department of Fife, Scotland. At one point in “Broken Ground,” Pirie’s verbal outburst in an Edinburgh cafe triggers an altogether unintended response, perhaps even a murder. Jessica Fletcher of Cabot Cove, Pirie isn’t.

But Pirie’s doggedness, braininess and moral clarity are just what’s needed in her job as head of a cold cases unit. In this fifth installment of the Pirie series, the feisty detective is called upon to find the killer of a young athlete who’s been shot in the head; his body is discovered in a highlands peat bog where it’s been preserved for nearly 25 years. Pirie works in Historic Cases, as it’s called, “because I believe people deserve answers. There are few things harder to live with than not knowing the fate of people we love.”

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Mysteriously, the young man, Joey Sutherland, was found interred alongside two classic World War II-era motorbikes. Pirie’s investigation takes her back not just to 1995 — a pair of unusual Nikes on the corpse helps her estimate the year of the murder — but all the way back to 1944. As the war was nearing its end, a couple of British soldiers filched and buried some military equipment destined for the scrap heap, unaware that an unscrupulous American GI had hidden ill-gotten riches inside one of the bikes. Over the decades, a treasure hunt involving several parties — some innocent, some malevolent — got really complicated before turning deadly.

Pirie is also on a search for a violent rapist who attacked women two decades earlier. There’s renewed interest in the case after one of the rapist’s permanently injured victims dies. Pirie believes the woman’s family’s grief might be lessened if justice is served. Though thanks to the cruel ineptitude of a malicious young constable Pirie’s supervisor has sent to spy on her, the vengeance visited on the perpetrator is not what Pirie had in mind. (It’s one of those twists the best mystery writers come up with that’s a surprise but not really a surprise.)

McDermid — who hails from the Scottish town of Kirkcaldy — calls her work “Tartan Noir,” and her new book is brimming with marvelous linguistic Scottish-isms. “Right now, your coat is on a very shoogly peg,” Pirie is warned by her borderline-corrupt boss. And then there’s Hamish MacKenzie, a “magnificent” hunk in a kilt with flowing locks who, when she’s around him, leaves Pirie alternately weak-kneed and suspicious. Still grieving after the death of her police colleague and lover Phil Parhatka a year earlier, Pirie isn’t sure how to react to MacKenzie’s obvious affectionate interest.

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Both ultracompetent and physically a little dumpy, Pirie “was, she knew, the kind of woman men either dismissed or treated like the sister they were slightly intimidated by. Only Phil had ever seen past that.” So she’s pleased when MacKenzie ever so politely pursues her. But since he is the man who discovered the body of Joey Sutherland in MacKenzie’s own peat bog, she wonders about his motives.

Another situation that brings out Pirie’s tender side is the plight of a group of Syrian refugees. When she discovers them holding social get-togethers under a bridge, Pirie helps the group get a coffee shop going. One result is shelter and warmth for these distressed people and an endless supply of superior pastries for Pirie. It’s time that mystery writers noticed Europe’s newest arrivals, whose lives are filled with a degree of suspense none of them ever wanted or deserved. Almost in passing, “Broken Ground” is revelatory in that regard.

Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.


By Val McDermid

Atlantic Monthly Press. 419 pp. $26.

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