The skeleton at issue in Val McDermid's new stand-alone mystery, "The Skeleton Road," is discovered by an acrophobic demolition surveyor atop a Victorian Gothic school in Edinburgh, Scotland. The road from the skeleton takes us across Scotland to Oxford, the Hague and ultimately to the region formerly known as Yugoslavia.
The road also takes us back to the early 1990s, when the Balkans erupted in vicious conflict marked by massacres in places like Kosovo and Srebrenica as well as the siege of that beautiful old-world city, Dubrovnik.
Juxtaposed against this background are several overlapping plot lines. Karen Pirie is the somewhat schlumpy but not to be underestimated chief inspector of Edinburgh's Historic Cases Unit, assisted by the loyal but not-too-bright Detective Constable Jason "The Mint" Murray. Inspector Pirie quickly determines that the skeleton was a murder victim, and she has to discover who did it and why.
All roads eventually lead to Maggie Blake, an Oxford professor specializing in Balkan geopolitics who is pining over a lover who left without a trace eight years ago: Gen. Dimitar Petrovic ("Mitja"), former head of Croatian military intelligence. Maggie's best friend, Tessa, a human rights lawyer, provides a shoulder to cry on even as she is pursuing a personal vendetta that will intersect with other plotlines in interesting ways.
Then there are Alan Macanespie and Theo Proctor, two lowly lawyers seconded to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Their new boss insists that they find out who has been assassinating putative war criminals before they can be brought to trial. McDermid throws in some macabre humor as Macanespie undertakes his work looking for cheap train tickets and bargain airfares to fit within a government budget. No James Bond martini for him.
The ICTFY lawyers soon turn their attention to Mitja as the possible assassin. Pirie begins to think he may actually be the skeleton in question. Professor Blake believes Mitja is alive and that he has simply left her to return to village life in Croatia and possibly another family there.
As the mystery unfolds, the story is interrupted by excerpts from Blake's diary, in which she describes both the days she endured in Dubrovnik during the 1991 siege and her love for Mitja, whom she met there. The descriptions of the Balkan War are detailed and heart wrenching. They remind us that even though the Balkans have disappeared from the front pages, to be replaced by massacres in places like Syria and Iraq, they remain a skeleton in our own global closet.
As the story moves forward, McDermid delves ever more deeply into the psyches of the major characters. Most interesting is Inspector Pirie herself, who is doggedness personified. Her personal skeleton is that while many of her colleagues presume she is gay because of her appearance (short hair? overweight? wrinkled clothes?), she actually lives with her former superior, Sgt. Phil Porhatka, who provides comfort when she most needs it.
McDermid excels in putting the reader at the center of the action. We feel we are with Inspector Pirie as she drives down a tortuous mountain road in Scotland in the dead of night. We come to understand "buildering," the act of climbing the outside of landmark buildings to reach the "wee turrets in the corners." We experience living in a city under siege where there is neither electricity nor water and where the height of luxury is a kitchen cupboard stocked with instant noodles and bottles of Scotch.
McDermid is a prolific writer, and she skillfully weaves the plot threads together, culminating in a climax set atop the same rooftop in Oxford that Dorothy Sayers depicted in "Gaudy Night." Perhaps this is her own way of reminding us that some things don't change, even if it's just the view from an Oxford rooftop.
In terms of more important things not changing, human history is replete with ethnic conflict, war and war crimes, and age-old questions that continue to bedevil us, such as whether revenge killings are ever justified.
"The Skeleton Road" does an excellent job of wrangling with these big ideas inside a tightly paced mystery with wonderful depictions of place, characters we come to care about and an ending that contains at least one unhappy surprise. It reminds us that our collective history contains many skeletons, and that many roads lead from them. When all is said and done, rough justice is achieved in "The Skeleton Road," but my bones tell me we haven't seen the last of Inspector Pirie — or at least I hope not.
Napolitano is president of the University of California.
The Skeleton Road
Atlantic Monthly Press: 384 pp., $25