The bloody Balkans wars of the 1990s provide the backdrop to prolific Scottish writer Val McDermid’s latest psychological thriller.
The genocide and other horrific war crimes committed during the conflicts associated with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia shocked the world, with an International Criminal Tribunal established to bring the perpetrators to justice.
In McDermid’s fictional tale, someone doesn’t think punishment is being delivered nearly swiftly or harshly enough. They are on a personal mission of revenge, efficiently assassinating the accused before they can face trial, and two lackadaisical English investigators at the Criminal Tribunal are yanked out of their stupor when they are charged with finding out who the killer is and how they are getting hold of confidential information.
Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, historic cases investigator Karen Pirie has a challenge of her own: identifying a skeleton with a bullet hole in the head found at the top of an abandoned gothic building.
Eventually the two investigations will cross over, as inquiries traverse locations as diverse as a university in Oxford, a Cretan holiday spot and a tiny village in Croatia. Thorny issues of geopolitics and international justice vie for attention with complex personal relationships and long-buried secrets as Pirie tries to figure out a motive for the Edinburgh murder and the tribunal investigators attempt to close in on their rogue avenger.
With 26 best-selling novels to her name, McDermid – who was in Australia last month for a book tour that sadly didn’t make it to Adelaide – is an expert at weaving together myriad elements to create a complex, taut and satisfying thriller.
She is known for her TV series Wire in the Blood and the series of books featuring regular characters Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, Kate Brannigan, and Lindsay Jordan, but Pirie is a newcomer – a sharp, likeable detective whose slightly dumpy, plain appearance leads adversaries to underestimate her at their peril.
The Skeleton Road is a stand-alone novel, yet Pirie is the kind of character to whom readers could become attached, so don’t be surprised if she returns for another outing. This novel is an excellent read, full of tension and intrigue and made all the more chilling by the real-life horrors of war underlying the fiction.
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