In the center of historic Edinburgh, builders are preparing to demolish a disused Victorian Gothic building. They are understandably surprised to find skeletal remains hidden in a high pinnacle that hasn't been touched by maintenance for years. Who do the bones belong to, and how did they get there? Could the eccentric British pastime of free climbing the outside of buildings play a role? Enter cold case detective Karen Pirie, who gets to work trying to establish the corpse's identity. And when it turns out the bones may be from as far away as former Yugoslavia, Karen will need to dig deeper than she ever imagined into the tragic history of the Balkans: to war crimes and their consequences, and ultimately to the notion of what justice is and who serves it.
The Skeleton Road is an edge-of-your-seat, unforgettable read from one of our finest crime writers.
Whodunit: Incriminating pictures are worth a thousand words
How could you not be fascinated by a photo of a woman wearing a wedding dress, standing alone on a beach, clasping a handgun behind her back? There has to be a story there, right? Well, there is, titled (unsurprisingly) Woman with a Gun and penned by Phillip Margolin. The woman in the photograph is Megan Cahill, on the night of her 2005 wedding to multimillionaire Raymond Cahill—the very night that Raymond was shot to death. To further complicate matters, Megan suffered a blow to the head and cannot remember anything that happened that evening—or so she says. The scanty evidence was all circumstantial, and the murder was never solved. The photo went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Fast forward to 2015, when fledgling novelist Stacey Kim sees the photograph in a trendy Manhattan art exhibit. Captivated by the image, Kim wants to write a novel based loosely on the decade-old news item. Little does she know that the truth is much stranger than any fiction—and exponentially more dangerous and deadly.
Those crazy Scots. For lack of something better to do, a number of them have taken up free-climbing, scaling the outside of old buildings without the benefit of ropes or other climbing aids. It would seem that the greatest danger in this pastime would be a fall from a high place, so imagine the surprise of an acrophobic building inspector when he happens upon the skeleton of a free-climber in a Gothic turret high atop a Victorian-era building, in Val McDermid’s aptly titled The Skeleton Road. But this is no natural death, as there is a hole the size of a shirt button just above where the right eyebrow used to be. Enter Karen Pirie of the Edinburgh cold case squad, because, as it turns out, cases don’t get much colder than this. Her forensics team turns up dental evidence suggesting that the skeleton may have originated in the Balkans. Meanwhile, an ocean away on the sunny Greek isle of Crete, a retired history professor is murdered. There is no apparent connection to the skeleton in Scotland, but a bit of digging reveals the deceased to have been a Balkan war criminal who managed to slip away scot-free. The Skeleton Road is listed as a standalone novel, but don’t be surprised to see Pirie again; I suspect McDermid’s readers will demand it.
OFF THE PAGE
In reviewing Pierre Lemaitre’s American debut novel, Alex, I noted that the book was “deliciously twisted and truly not to be missed.” I am pleased to report that the second novel of the Camille Verhoeven trilogy, Irène—which is actually a prequel to Alex—is every bit as twisted as its predecessor. Cops everywhere dread the notion of a copycat killer, someone who reads a newspaper story of a murder and then sets out to duplicate it in every detail. But what if you have a copycat killer who ups that game a notch, copying several of the goriest murders depicted in modern fiction, such as James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia or Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho? A well-written mystery could give a would-be killer all sorts of helpful hints at honing his craft, and the killer known as “The Novelist” borrows from the best. One word of caution: The violence is graphic, overflowing with torture, dismemberments and miles of entrails, so use discretion when reading Irène close to bedtime.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
If you want to create a badass protagonist in suspense fiction, give him only one name, like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser (and his uber-cool sidekick, Hawk) or James W. Hall’s Thorn, hero of more than a dozen first-rate novels, the latest of which is The Big Finish. Thorn would like for his action days to be behind him; he wants nothing more than to live off the grid, just a simple life tying expensive flies for wealthy sport fishermen. But last year, Thorn discovered that he has a grown son, the result of a fleeting liaison a couple of decades back. His son, Flynn Moss, possesses an extraordinary talent for creating drama in Thorn’s otherwise staid existence. Flynn is a major player in the eco-underground and is an experienced nonviolent saboteur. Now he is on the run, or perhaps dead, the only clue to his recent existence a postcard bearing the words “Help me!” Novels are often described as “character-driven” or “plot-driven”; the Thorn novels are rage-driven. Thorn will bear a lot with equanimity, but if you incur his serious ire, step back—no, scratch that, run away as fast as you can.