Before reading The Skeleton Road, I associated mystery writer Val McDermid with simple Scottish noir. I've now discovered that her work is much more wide-ranging. In this opus, she paints -- some would say skewers -- Oxford University in a way that reveals a more than passing association with her alma mater. The "skeleton" murder goes back to the Balkan wars, connecting to an Oxford professor of human geography who built her career on time spent in a besieged Dubrovnik.
After the war ends, lawyers and others work tirelessly to bring war criminals to justice at the Hague. But in the aftermath of such bloody civil strife, how can a neutral justice system repair the damage? What happens when cycles of vengeance become self-perpetuating? What about the war criminals who got away?
Having witnessed Balkan horrors first-hand, how can academics and seekers of impartial justice remain separate from this history? Can they remain coldly pragmatic enough to lay charges where evidence can be obtained, hope for convictions, and then get on with their lives? Even Scottish detective Karen Pirie, working on an eight-year-old murder, is deeply affected by the war story that led to what turns out to be a revenge killing, though not pure revenge. Personal ambition, sexual jealousy and ego come into it too.
McDermid's novelistic creation reflects the complexity of how we live in society. No person, group or nation can stand above or apart from another. We are all tarred by various forms of chauvinism, tainted by the history of our innumerable warring tribes, both within and without.
From this book, I moved on to a masterpiece of another sort. Splinter the Silence features detective Carol Jordan and psychological profiler Dr. Tony Hill, two damaged souls who still come down on the side of right. This novel portrays the contemporary issue of cyber-bullying. In this case, it's bad enough to lead three high profile women to kill themselves. But could the apparent suicides be murders? Are they connected to the deaths of prostitutes who are being bumped off at the same time?
McDermid's fictional world can be harsh. Though characters like Jason "the Mint" provide a welcome relief and counterpoint, the author's troubled but deeply sympathetic protagonists implicate the reader in a dark world. I can't decide whether the author's determination to educate readers in the seamy side of life is salubrious, or just morbid. Meanwhile, I keep reading.
In emotional evocation, McDermid's work reminds me of the work of Anosh Irani, After reading Irani's The Song of Kahunsha on a cruise, I dropped it like a hot coal in the ship's library. Splinter the Silence was another of those books I was glad I read, but relieved to finish. I couldn't wait to get it out of the house and back to the library.