The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid

The Skeleton Road (Inspector Karen Pirie, #3)

The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid is the third of her DCI Karen Pirie novels. Investigating the identity of the skeleton found, with a bullet hole in its skull, on the rooftop of a crumbling, gothic building in Edinburgh takes Karen and her Historic Cases Unit into a dark world of intrigue and betrayal during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s.

It begins slowly, introducing rather a bewildering number of characters one after the other. It moves between the past and the present in Scotland, England and Croatia, told through different viewpoints, and interweaving the sequence of events in the past and the present in a way that I found rather disjointed. Dr River Wilde a forensic anthropologist, discovers that the skeleton is a male, he’d been dead between five and ten years and his dental work shows he was originally from one of the Eastern bloc countries.

It’s a complex story with several strands, including the search for war criminals through the work of two lawyers at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Karen’s investigations take her to Oxford and then to a small village in Croatia, a place scarred by fear, where people have endured unspeakable acts of violence.

At times I thought I was reading an account of the wars and the search for justice and revenge rather than a murder mystery. Even given the traumatic events it describes I didn’t feel there was much tension in the search for the killer and I was able to figure out who it was fairly quickly. I enjoyed the sections focusing on Karen’s and her assistant DS James, ‘the Mint’ Murray’s detective work, and I liked all the details of her relationship with her partner, Phil (also a police officer, now working on a different team).  But I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first two Karen Pirie books – in fact I think the first book, The Distant Echo is by far the best.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown (11 Sept. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408704579
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408704578
  • Source: a library book
  • My rating: 3*

7 thoughts on “The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid

  1. I really liked The Distant Echo but it wasn’t quite what I expected. The four boys were the centre of the book, rather than Karen Pirie (think I may already have said this in a comment to you elsewhere). Nevertheless, I was totally gripped by the story and thought it was excellent. Interesting that you thought the first book was the best. I shall move on to book 2 at some stage.

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  2. I agree with you about this book. I felt McDermid had wanted an excuse to write about the Balkan conflict and conjured up a possible scenario to allow her to do that. As you know, I haven’t enjoyed quite a lot of her recent work and I’m not sure I shall be picking up future offerings.

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    1. I felt the same! And in the Acknowledgements she says that she relied heavily on Dr Kathy Wilkes’ own writings about the siege of Dubrovnik and their conversations in the aftermath of the 1991-92 Croatian War. She also mentions Prof Sue Black who was the lead forensic anthropologist to the British Forensic Team in Kosovo. I’m not sure I’ll read any more of her books as I think the first one I read, The Point of Execution, a standalone book is the best one I’ve read.


  3. Glad to hear that you found things to like about this one, Margaret, even if you found a few things wanting. I think McDermid is really talented, and I give her credit for trying new things out.

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