A woman detective’s troubles, told at tangled length
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.