Friday, 21 September 2018

The Distant Echo - Val McDernid

The Distant Echo has, with hindsight, become the first in the Karen Pirie 'cold case' series. I make what might seem an odd point because whilst it is a cold case and Karen Pirie is in charge of the file, she doesn't appear until about 360 pages in and contributes nothing to solving the case.

What in fact we have is a dense, two-part crime story. In 1978 a bunch of mates, studying together at St Andrews University, stumble upon a body in the snow. Rosie Duff was nineteen, a barmaid at one of the student pubs. She has been raped and stabbed and dumped in the old Pictish graveyard. The boys are initially treated as suspects. They were drunk, they had access to a suitable vehicle, all bar one are of the right blood group. But there is no real evidence. They are bailed, their names leaked to the Press. It is assumed by all they are guilty. They are so overwhelmed by the pressure that one tries to commit suicide. In trying to save him, the lead investigating officer, DI Maclennan, loses his life. In effect, whoever killed Rosie is now responsible for the deaths of two people.

That story makes up about half of a 560-page book. The detail is immense, the characterisation forensically detailed. Flash forward twenty-five years. It is now 2003 and forensic science has moved on considerably, albeit nowhere near so much as it has today. Police all over the world are re-opening old cases in light of the latest advances in DNA profiling. The Chief Constable of Fife has decided to get with the programme and has set up a small cold case unit. Karen Pirie has the Rosie Duff profile, which is very much a priority, given that the other cold case officer is the younger brother of the late Maclennan and James Lawson, the first police officer on the scene, is now ACC Crime with special responsibility for the unit.

The four original suspects are now spread across both sides of the Atlantic. Alex and Ziggy are still close, even though Ziggy is a paediatrician in Seattle while Alex is a Glasgow manufacturer of greeting cards. Tom aka Weird became an evangelical Christian under the pressure of the original investigation and now conducts a TV ministry in America. Davey is a lecturer in French and has no real contact with the others, despite living barely an hour's drive from Alex and despite the fact that has sister Lynn has long been married to Alex.

No sooner has the case been reopened than Ziggy dies in a fire. Then a second member of the quartet is murdered. Another is attacked in the street and left for dead. The list of suspects is long and the police have no new leads. The evidence from the original investigation into Rosie's murder has gone missing.

The Distant Echo (not a great title) is a fabulous, serious, psychological and procedural crime novel. It demonstrates why McDermid is the grande dame of Tartan Noir. It is essential reading for students of the genre. I got it because I had seen a review for the latest Karen Pirie. I'm now seeking out the rest of the series.

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