Val McDer­mid’s fe­male de­tec­tive gets the job done

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE -

FIC­TION 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 self­in­flicted. 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.

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