I knew Ms McDermid’s name, but had never read any of her books until I picked this up in the library. It sometimes takes me some time to get into a new series – a new world, set of characters, and outlook, but this was an exception.
The world of DCI Karen Pirie is just such a new world for me, for a number of reasons.
First, it takes place in Scotland, a country where I have never lived, and a society that is alien to me. I’ve never had the courage to try Irn-Bru (shame on me), and have only crossed the border about half a dozen times (if that) in my life. McDermid’s Scotland, by the way, is a very different country from that of Hamish Macbeth – McDermid makes a passing indirect reference to this at one point in this book.
Secondly, it describes a working environment which appears to me to be meticulously observed and described. I’ve never been a polis (I like that Scottish expression) and though there is the semi-cliché of the incompetent and jealous superior, DCI Pirie manages to become a rounded personality. There is a lot of backstory (a recently dead colleague and lover) which I have missed out on, since this appears to be the latest in the series, but it doesn’t seem to matter too much.
Thirdly, much of the environment is strange to me – not just the Scottish side of things, but the whole of the UK in the 1990s, 2000s, and half of the 2010s. To me, these are lost decades, and much of the culture and references just passes me by. Yes, I can use Wikipedia to tell me about New Kids on the Block, Ant and Dec, etc., but it tells me very little about these things in context – who was/is their fanbase, etc. So reading a book like this is a crash course in recent social history. The take on current situations, such as Syrian refugees, and the influence of right-wing press barons on police investigations, would appear to be authentic and researched.
Won’t you please, please, help me?
Having said which, at the end of the book, McDermid lists:
- three editors
- one copyeditor
- a publicist
- and eight experts who provided her with specialist advice on various topics
Most authors don’t have that many doors opened to them, but it’s an inspiration to us writers to go knocking on those doors – that is, if we are the kind of writer who likes to get facts right. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? A refusal, polite or otherwise. Actually, as I learned from my time writing magazine articles (I remember one interview with the man who makes referees’ whistles for the FIFA World Cup), most experts are only too keen to talk about the mysteries of their craft.
Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?
Loved it – all characters were alive, behaved in realistic (but sometimes unpredictable) ways which were consistent with their character, and not too outrageous. Inner conflicts were not overdone (as opposed to what I remember of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, with whom I lost interest after about four or five books, or Agatha Raisin).
Style – didn’t get in the way at all. Scottish localisation – enough to plant it firmly in its setting, but avoiding travelogue and overuse of dialect. Basically, the style never intruded – and for a genre novel, that’s a good thing – it shouldn’t grate or draw undue attention to itself. There were one or two little bon mots, but they weren’t overdone or overused.
Plot – ingenious, and entirely plausible, if unlikely. Some very nice red herrings, but an overall structure to the plot which drove it along nicely, and even though the story is seen from different points of view at times, this doesn’t distract from the unity of the story too much.
Definitely makes me want to find more Karen Pirie – this is one book and author I can definitely learn from, and that’s not something I say very often.