There are few other crime writers in the same league as Val McDermid. Her stories are ingeniously plotted, moody and typically quite hefty. “Out of Bounds,” her latest book featuring Scottish Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie, is more than 400 pages, which is standard for McDermid. Perhaps there’s just too much evil adrift in the atmosphere of Edinburgh to be contained in leaner novels.
“Out of Bounds” is composed of three main plotlines, each one having to do with characters’ struggles to endure in the long aftermath of violence. Karen is barely functioning after the recent murder of “the love of her life,” Detective Sgt. Phil Parhatka, who was killed in the line of duty. With her savings and the money Phil bequeathed her, Karen has bought a modern high-rise flat overlooking the water. There are no memories to haunt her in that sterile glass refuge, but still, Karen can’t sleep at night. So, she walks, in darkness and icy rain, through the dodgiest parts of the city.
One night she happens upon a group of men, Syrian refugees, standing around a fire. It turns out they gather to talk and sustain each other through their own ordeal of loss and displacement. Detectives, as Raymond Chandler famously said, are always trying to fix “a world gone wrong,” and soon enough Karen becomes involved in helping the refugees and their families gain a more secure foothold in Edinburgh.
Karen also finds distraction from grief in her official day job when two baffling cold cases land on her desk. As head of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit, Karen is alerted to “a hit on the DNA database” linking a drunk driver (whose blood has routinely been analyzed) to the unsolved rape and murder of a young hairdresser in Glasgow. The catch is that the drunk driver, now in a coma, is only 17, and the unsolved crime took place 20 years ago. If Karen and her team can figure out this puzzle, perhaps they can bring some comfort to the victim’s now aged parents.
The other case at first seems out of Karen’s jurisdiction. It concerns a troubled man named Gabriel Abbott whose body has been found slumped on a bench, gun in his cold hand. Suicide is the immediate verdict issued by one of Karen’s lazier colleagues; that is, until another police officer notices that the gun was found in the wrong hand for the wound to have been self-inflicted. Soon enough, Karen finds that Gabriel was connected to a cold case, giving her an opportunity to get involved.
As much as this absorbing novel rests on McDermid’s deft scattering of red herrings and revelations within each of these story lines (zombie lure even plays a momentary role in cracking one of the cases!) — it’s Karen’s character that’s the enduring draw of this series. Stubborn and shrewd, Karen (like Detective Columbo of yore) knows that for a detective, sometimes a disheveled look works better than sleek one. A few extra pounds, “a wardrobe that always looked slightly rumpled; a haircut that never quite delivered what it had promised in the salon,” all help people feel comfortable around her, relaxed enough to be forthcoming. “Women never felt threatened by her and men treated her like a wee sister or a favorite auntie.”
Not all the men around Karen find her so quaint, though: She has continuing difficulties with higher-ups who still cling fast to the belief that police work is an unsuitable job for a woman. Fools. No one is more tenacious than DCI Pirie, especially when she’s underestimated. To solve her cases — cold and warm-blooded — Karen impetuously travels to London by night train and prowls the posher sections of that city trawling for clues. But the final answers lie, as they almost always do, closer to home. “Out of Bounds” is another terrific and intricate suspense novel by a writer who has given us 30 of them. As I said, there are few other crime writers in the same league as Val McDermid.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Val McDermid
Atlantic Monthly. 421 pp. $25.