A woman de­tec­tive’s trou­bles, told at tan­gled length

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Muriel Dob­bin

Cold cases may be among the most dif­fi­cult prob­lems in the ca­reer of any vet­eran de­tec­tive such as Karen Pirie who is at the van­guard of that spe­cial­ized group tack­ling such cases.

The case in which she is cur­rently in­volved is strange and sad and it col­lides with a tragic pe­riod in Karen’s life when her de­tec­tive part­ner and lover has been killed. As she strug­gles with her grief, she stum­bles into an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the 22-year-old con­nec­tion be­tween the plight of a joyrid­ing teenager cur­rently in a coma and a still-un­solved mur­der of a young hair­dresser.

Val McDer­mid is a vet­eran writer of many mys­ter­ies, and she of­fers a de­tailed por­trait of the un­happy Karen who is hav­ing ma­jor dif­fi­culty with both per­sonal and pro­fes­sional prob­lems. Her sit­u­a­tion is fur­ther com­pli­cated by the emer­gence in the cur­rent case of a ter­ror­ist bomb­ing in North­ern Ire­land.

Karen has an ex­cel­lent rep­u­ta­tion in her work if you don’t count the fact that she drives her su­pe­rior of­fi­cer, whom she has nick­named “The Mac­a­roon,” to his fury, mad to the point that he is pre­pared to sab­o­tage her work and get her trans­ferred. Karen has be­come the lieu­tenant of Jimmy Hut­ton the de­tec­tive in­spec­tor who is chief of the Mur­der Preven­tion team of Po­lice Scot­land and a man who takes no prison­ers. There is no ro­man­tic con­nec­tion be­tween the pair although Hut­ton grows close to Karen af­ter the death of the de­tec­tive known as her “bi­die in” in Scot­tish slang. Their re­la­tion­ship is based on more of a com­bi­na­tion of com­pan­ion­ship and gin than pas­sion. They have a Mon­day night ren­dezvous when they con­sume co­pi­ous amounts of tonic and ex­otic gins like Pro­fes­sor Cor­nelius Am­ple­forth’s bath­tub con­fec­tion.

And of course they talk con­stant shop be­cause Hut­ton’s psy­chol­ogy about solv­ing homi­cides is harsh. He takes the po­si­tion of “zero tol­er­ance and no hid­ing place” and it was sur­pris­ing how of­ten he was proved right. This does not en­dear ei­ther Hut­ton or Karen to The Mac­a­roon who ob­jects to her psy­chol­ogy and her in­cli­na­tion to be­come in­volved in cases be­yond her ju­ris­dic­tion, with Hut­ton egging her on. Noth­ing gives Karen more sat­is­fac­tion than dis­cov­er­ing and prov­ing that a killer is not only a celebrity but a mem­ber of the peer­age. And she is es­pe­cially an­gered by the cold case of Tina Mac­Don­ald, a young hair­dresser raped and stran­gled more than two decades ear­lier, whose mur­der is still un­solved.

And sud­denly, de­spite the ob­jec­tions of The Mac­a­roon, the Mac­Don­ald case is alive at least in the minds of Hut­ton and Karen. How­ever, Karen’s pro­fes­sional skills are ham­pered by her in­abil­ity to re­cover from her lover’s death and not even her be­ing with Hut­ton try­ing out ex­otic gin can con­sole her. It is also un­for­tu­nate that she is as stub­born as a mule in how she han­dles her dif­fi­cul­ties, and tak­ing ad­vice even from women friends is al­most be­yond her.

As is her habit, Ms. McDer­mid ties up her plot and other char­ac­ters in psy­cho­log­i­cal knots and oc­ca­sion­ally al­most stran­gles them. The book is packed with di­a­logue and re­flec­tions that do not al­ways pro­vide in­sight into Karen and ev­i­dently are as con­fus­ing to her col­leagues. Es­pe­cially Ja­son “The Mint” Mur­ray, the young man who is Karen’s as­sis­tant and who is devoted to her pro­fes­sion­ally but has so lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence that their part­ner­ship is ham­pered by the older de­tec­tive’s in­cli­na­tion to be ma­ter­nal. The au­thor also is in­clined to em­pha­size that while women have come in­deed a long way in law en­force­ment, their suc­cess may still de­pend on a su­pe­rior of­fi­cer’s sen­si­tiv­ity and sen­si­bil­ity.

The fact that Karen and The Mac­a­roon have nei­ther friend­ship nor un­der­stand­ing of their re­spec­tive roles con­trib­utes noth­ing to the plot bog­ging down in tragedy. Her fe­ro­cious attitude to­ward her work costs her phys­i­cal in­juries as well as the wrath of The Mac­a­roon. She is still haunted by her lover’s death, and her con­stant in­som­nia and fierce­ness of per­son­al­ity make more dif­fi­cult her strug­gles as she climbs back to what had once passed for nor­mal pro­fes­sional skills.

The book is over­long at more than 400 pages. It is more a of a his­tory of a woman de­tec­tive’s trou­bles than a mur­der mys­tery. The au­thor has painted a kalei­do­scope of Karen’s psy­chol­ogy and what she suf­fers. It is es­pe­cially tan­gled be­cause it is a woman de­tec­tive, which can be a weak­ness in a McDer­mid book. Muriel Dob­bin is a for­mer White House and na­tional po­lit­i­cal re­porter for McClatchy news­pa­pers and the Bal­ti­more Sun.

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