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On the theory that a change is as good as a rest, I left the cozy world behind for this week's mystery, and turned to police procedurals in the Tartan Noir tradition.  Tartan Noir because, as much as I enjoy the Scandinavian and Nordic Noir, I have a special fondness for the Scots.

Val McDermid was born and raised in Kirkcaldy, Scotland a small town that is, as she writes:

famous for producing linoleum and for being the birthplace of the economist Adam Smith.
From there, she went to St Hilda's College, Oxford to read English.  St Hilda's was an all-women's college until 2008 and Val McDermid was one of the youngest undergrads at 17.  She was also the first undergraduate from a Scottish state school.

Graduating in 1975, she turned to a paying career in journalism while writing novels on the side. Her first, Like a Happy Ending, completed in her twenties was

a typical 21-year-old's novel - full of tortured human relationships, love, hate, grief, angst, not to mention the meaning of life. It was, naturally enough, rejected by every publishing house in London. But an actor friend who read it thought it would make a good play.
She later adapted it for BBC radio.  Although commissioned for another play, she felt she lacked the practical skills to become a dramatist.  Apparently her agent agreed and fired her since she was not making him enough money.  That is when she began to write crime novels, starting Report for Murder in 1984.  She became a full time novelist, quiting her day job, in 1991.  It must be pleasant for her to occasionally think of the agent who felt she wasn't profitable enough for his office.  Especially when she took home the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement in crime writing in 2010.

Thank you Wikipedia for this listing of Val McDermid's work:

Lindsay Gordon series
Report for Murder (1987)
Common Murder (1989)
Final Edition (1991) US Titles: Open and Shut, Deadline for Murder
Union Jack (1993), US Title: Conferences are Murder
Booked for Murder (1996)
Hostage to Murder (2003)

Kate Brannigan series
Dead Beat (1992)
Kick Back (1993)
Crack Down (1994)
Clean Break (1995)
Blue Genes (1996)
Star Struck (1998)

Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series
The Mermaids Singing (1995)
The Wire in the Blood (1997)
The Last Temptation (2002)
The Torment of Others (2004)
Beneath the Bleeding (2007)
Fever of the Bone (2009)
The Retribution (2011)

Other books
A Suitable Job for a Woman (1994); non-fiction
The Writing on the Wall (1997); short stories, limited edition of 200 copies
A Place of Execution (1999)
Killing the Shadows (2000)
The Distant Echo (2003)
Stranded (2005); short stories
The Grave Tattoo (2006)
A Darker Domain (2008)
Trick of the Dark (2010)

I selected three of McDermid's works; two stand-alone mysteries and one that was part of the Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series.  

The Distant Echo, St. Martin's Minotaur, Oct 2003, 384 pages, ISBN-10: 0312301995

In 1978 Alex Gilbey and three of his fellow students at St. Andrews stumble across the dying body of a local bar maid as they stagger their way home after a late night party.  Although they frantically try to save her, Rosie Duff dies.  The four young men are the only suspects, but they are never charged and no one is ever convicted of her murder.

For twenty-five years the case remains unsolved until the Fife Police begin a cold case review.  At about the same time, one of the original students dies in a house fire that may have been set and another is the victim of a robbery gone bad.  Or so it appears.  But to Alex Gilbey, it seems that someone is taking revenge for the young woman's murder twenty-five years earlier.  Fearing that he may be next, he starts his own hunt for the murderer of Rosie Duff.

In The Distant Echo Val McDermid examines the "poisonous nature of suspicion and guilt" and "the reverberation of damage through the lives of the people touched by murder."  And she does it very well as we watch the friendship that the boys shared slowly collapse under the weight of suspicion and the guilt of suspecting one's closest friends.

St Andrews comes alive on the page, in all of its splendid snow and chilly rains.  There are scenes that are unsettling and one, in St Andrews Castle, that stays with the reader long after the book is done.  The mystery is well played, with the surprise at the end that appears to be a McDermid trademark.  Clues are provided along the way and the careful reader who works at it might be able to resolve it before the end, but that would spoil the fun, wouldn't it?

I enjoyed this novel enough to try A Place of Execution, another stand alone mystery.


A Place of Execution, Minotaur Books, September 2000, 416 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0007243266
Winter 1963: two children have disappeared off the streets of Manchester; the murderous careers of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady have begun. On a freezing day in December, another child goes missing: thirteen-year-old Alison Carter vanishes from the isolated Derbyshire hamlet of Scardale, a self-contained, insular community that distrusts the outside world.

For the young George Bennett, a newly promoted inspector, it is the beginning of his most difficult and harrowing case: a murder with no body, an investigation with more dead ends and closed faces than he'd have found in the anonymity of the inner city, an outcome which reverberates down the years.

Decades later he finally tells his story to journalist Catherine Heathcote, but just when the book is poised for publication, Bennett unaccountably tries to pull the plug. He has new information which he refuses to divulge, and which threatens the very foundations of his existence. Catherine is forced to reinvestigate the past, with results that turn the world upside down. 

This was my favorite of the three mysteries.  Val McDermid does a remarkable job of re-creating the early 1960s, down to the music, the constant cigarettes (it did seem that everybody smoked back then), and coffee, and gender roles.  

She vividly paints the hills and the valley that holds these insular people who distrust not just the police, but everyone that hadn't lived there for generations.  They have created their own social contract and everyone knows everything about everyone else.  Almost.

A psychological suspense thriller that relies very little on violence to create a tension that the reader will try very hard to resolve.  And just when you think you have it all figured out, everything changes and then changes again.  When I finished this book I wanted to applaud her skill and cunning.  Beautifully done.  

In both A Distant Echo and A Place of Execution the author easily transitions between different eras, skillfully drawing the way we lived then and how we live now.  In Beneath the Bleeding, the action all takes place in the present.  This is book five of the series that formed the basis of the television series "Wire in the Blood," first produced for ITV in Britain and later shown here on BBC America.  

Beneath the Bleeding, HarperCollins, August 2007, 404 pages, ISBN-10: 000724326X

Psychologist and profiler, Dr Tony Hill is recovering in a hospital after an attack by an axe-wielding mental patient when Bradfield Victoria's star player is murdered, apparently poisoned with ricin.  While the police, under Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan, are investigating this seemingly motiveless crime, a bomb explodes under the stands of the Bradfield Victoria's football stadium.  Is it related?  Is it terrorism?  The intelligence service takes over the investigation of stadium bomb, leaving Jordan's team to search for the killer of the football star.

From his hospital bed Tony Hill finds his suggestions being ignored by Carol Jordan and so uses back channels to further his investigation.  Soon he is escaping the confines of the nursing staff to pursue his leads.  This sets up a conflict with Carol that strains their relationship.

It is interesting to pick up a book from the middle of a series, but I found this one contained a complete mystery with only incidental referrals to previous books.  Those references were fleshed out with enough detail to make them understandable.  It was a busy book with conflicts between DCI Jordan and the intelligence services, her staff and Tony Hill, as well as Tony Hill's conflicts with Carol Jordan, his mother and the restrictions of his injury.

In a soliloquy over the body of the dead footballer, Tony Hill discusses his own condition:

‘And I really don’t want them to do something about me. Not because I’m happy, pain-free and well adjusted. Because obviously I’m none of those things. How could I be, doing what I do?

‘But what I am is well-balanced. What is it that W.B. Yeats says? “In balance with this life, this death.” That’s me. In perfect equilibrium on the tipping point between life and death, sanity and madness, pleasure and pain.'

A little Caledonia antisyzygy anyone?  As I quoted Maureen M Martin in that earlier diary, this duality, this
conflict between rational and romantic, canny and reckless, moralistic and violent, an idea of dueling polarities within one entity that finds fictional expression not just in Stevenson but in Scottish writers such as James Hogg and Walter Scott.
And it appears in the Tartan Noir of Ian Rankin and Val McDermid.

Another big influence on the writers of Tartan Noir, as well as Scandinavian and Nordic, are the works of the American hard boiled detective novelists like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.  Next week those will be featured in a diary about American Noir.  Where it all started.

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
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Sun (hiatus) 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
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MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
Tue 10:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
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THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
alternate Thu 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Jun 18, 2012 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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