Idon’t usu­ally look as rough as this. It’s been a tough week and some­body tried to kill me last night.” So says De­tec­tive Chief In­spec­tor Karen Pirie, head of Police Scot­land’s His­toric Cases Unit, in the lat­ter quar­ter of Val Mc­der­mid’s 30th novel. It’s a line that tells us a lot about a char­ac­ter and about a book that con­clu­sively proves Mc­der­mid has lost none of her skills in cre­at­ing a grip­ping and en­ter­tain­ing page­turner, which is also a gen­uine con­tem­pla­tion about how past ac­tions and events con­tinue to in­flu­ence who we are to­day.

Out Of Bounds – the fourth DCI Karen Pirie book in a se­ries that also in­cludes The Dis­tant Echo, A Darker Do­main and The Skele­ton Road – be­gins when a teenage joyrider crashes a stolen car, and a rou­tine DNA test re­veals a sur­pris­ing con­nec­tion to an un­solved mur­der 22 years pre­vi­ously. Pirie and her col­league DC Ja­son “the Mint” Mur­ray briefly be­lieve that this case should be a rel­a­tively sim­ple one, but nat­u­rally soon dis­cover that, both phys­i­cally and legally, it’s as con­vo­luted as a strand of DNA.

An ad­di­tional com­pli­ca­tion is that Pirie – still griev­ing the mur­der of her for­mer col­league and part­ner, and openly hated by some of her fel­low “po­lis” – is ir­re­sistibly drawn to an­other case that, for nu­mer­ous pro­fes­sional and per­sonal rea­sons, she re­ally has no busi­ness think­ing about at all.

Mc­der­mid’s plot­ting of these over­lap­ping cases is, of course, as­sured. Ad­mit­tedly, she’s not the warm­est of writ­ers; sel­dom does Mc­der­mid come up with a phrase mem­o­rable in its own right. Also, while the novel’s strong­est char­ac­ter thread is Pirie’s griev­ing process – and we do spend much of the novel in­side Pirie’s head – there’s a cer­tain emo­tional de­tach­ment, thanks in part to Mc­der­mid’s habit of shift­ing the nar­ra­tive’s point-of-view char­ac­ter when­ever it suits her.

In ad­di­tion, Mc­der­mid has a ten­dency to take the old writer’s mantra of “show, don’t tell” too far on oc­ca­sions – for ex­am­ple, do we re­ally need to know the back­story of an early morn­ing cy­clist when the im­por­tant story point – the dis­cov­ery of a body – is ad­e­quately cov­ered later in a cou­ple of lines of di­a­logue?

On the plus side, Mc­der­mid’s writ­ing isn’t without hu­mour: at one point, she de­lib­er­ately draws at­ten­tion to the fact that her His­toric Cases Unit is ex­actly like a TV cop show – “One grumpy in­spec­tor and a sergeant like a sheep solv­ing all the crimes two-handed”.

Most im­por­tantly, in Out Of Bounds Mc­der­mid pro­vides her read­ers with a con­clu­sion that’s emo­tion­ally sat­is­fy­ing without break­ing the realms of be­liev­abil­ity.

“She’s lost none of her skill in cre­at­ing a grip­ping and en­ter­tain­ing page-turner”

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