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The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

Harper, 2010, 569 p. First published in 2003.

 The Distant Echo cover

I probably wouldn’t have read this – I wasn’t particularly taken by the author’s The Wire in the Blood – but the good lady had just finished it and mentioned it was set partly in my old stamping ground of Kirkcaldy and partly in St Andrews (which I know well.) So I thought I’d give it a go. The locations in the book aren’t restricted to Fife, it does stray to Edinburgh, Stirling, Glasgow, and even Seattle but the main events take place in what the locals like to call “the Kingdom.”

The prologue lets us know of a Fife Police press announcement of a cold case review and a shadowy figure haunting a cemetery before Part One plunges us into the 1978 discovery of the dying body of Rosie Duff by four students at St Andrews University (schoolfriends calling themselves the Lads Fi’ Kirkcaldy) taking a short cut back to their flat after a party. One of them is a medical student and tries to save her life but fails. As discoverers of the body and covered in blood they naturally become suspects. The investigation cannot summon up evidence even to charge them and the case is unresolved but they are still subjected to suspicion, threats and violence – especially by the dead girl’s brothers. McDermid makes a lot of this finger of suspicion and the effect it has on the four and their relationship(s). Part Two sees the resurrection of the case and its reintrusion into the four’s lives. But in the intervening twenty-five years the main evidence from the victim’s clothing has been lost and there seems little hope of progress. But the review has stirred the old suspicions and someone has the four firmly in the frame.

McDermid’s prose is certainly efficient but rarely rises above the workmanlike. The book’s structure, too, made it slightly odd. Part One was more or less scene setting, involved a lot of information dumping and therefore dragged somewhat. McDermid makes passing reference to the fascistic fringe and government encroachments on citizens’ rights in the late 1970s. (That sort of thing has become even worse of late with intolerance having been adopted into the political mainstream and governments eager to seize any excuse to restrict citizen’s rights.)

I would have said that it was cleverly executed except that the resolution was disappointing. It has more holes in it than Stoke City’s defence and depends too much on the prior withholding of information from the reader. In the last (tie-up) chapter it is revealed that one of the four Lads had a piece of information that would potentially have pointed to the murderer but never told the other three – nor the Police – during all those twenty-five years of suspicion. We can only suppose this was to create an artificial sense of suspense and it kind of obviates the point of the book (no matter what reason he might have had for his reticence.) Moreover the murderer seems to have been able to carry the body up a hill to where the Lads stumbled upon it without seemingly getting any blood on himself, even though the victim had a gaping wound.

McDermid has a wide readership. I assume they don’t like taxing their brains overmuch.

Pedant’s corner:- the main drag (St Andrews has a main drag?) Roger Waters’ (Waters’s. And I know he wrote Shine On You Crazy Diamond but did he sing on it? Wasn’t that David Gilmour?) “[Kirkcaldy’s] Town House looked like one of those less alluring products of Soviet architecture” (is more than a bit harsh. It’s a fine buiding.) Raith Rovers’ (Raith Rovers’s,) Brahms’ (Brahms’s,) “had strode” (stridden,) “‘Gonnae no dae that’” (is referred to as if it were a catchphrase from the early to mid 1970s. It wasn’t. Chewin’ the Fat, where it originated, was first aired in 1999.) “‘We lay low’” (we lie low – but it was in dialogue and the character had lived in the US for years and they can’t seem to get the lay/lie thing correct over there,) Soanes’ (Soanes’s.) “The sky was clear, a gibbous moon hanging low in the sky between the bridges.” (sky….sky,.) Sainsburys (Sainsbury’s.) Plus several instances of “time interval later”.

The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid

Harper, 2010, 537 p. First published 1997. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 The Wire in the Blood cover

I have not seem the TV series into which this was adapted so had no preconceptions, nor illusions to be shattered, but it wasn’t long into the novel before I was wondering why it made it onto a list of Scotland’s favourite books. It seemed like a reasonably standard crime (or police procedural) novel with nothing particular to distinguish it. Okay there is a twist in the sense that we are in the midst of a newly set up (and experimental – for the UK) psychological profiling unit but we have the usual coppers reluctant to accept something different from their common practice. Then there were the things that swiftly irritated or grated. We discover who the baddy is in the prologue, pretty well dispelling the suspense and rendering the sections where we learn how he got to be psychopathic less revealing than they might be. Several early sections begin in journalese – the first three are, “Tony Hill lay in bed,” “Shaz Bowman understood perfectly,” “Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan slipped the original out of the photocopier.” With the odd exception this practice is repeated throughout, though perhaps with surnames omitted. Fair enough we are dealing with a range of viewpoints and authors may need to signal who the relevant character is but this way of doing it is, at the least, inelegant. Then there is the fact that in the text no crime is committed till well after page 100, which for a crime novel, I would submit, is lumberingly slow. The sub-plot, about a fire-raiser in East Yorkshire, seemed only to be there to give one of the characters a tenuous connection to the experiences of the profiling expert. And the victims are portrayed as almost asking for their fate – certainly by the killer but also by the police officers investigating (cursorily) their disappearances – which is disconcerting.

Having said that, McDermid does know her tool – language – and deploys it well (only three entries for Pedant’s Corner is remarkable for a book this length) and her plotting was accomplished even if it unravelled a little slowly and the psychopath’s mistake was obvious from the moment it happened (and somewhat unlikely I’d have thought.)

I have read that McDermid modelled her psychopath on Jimmy Savile (brave for the time, and she expected to be taken up on it) but while he is a very well-known TV personality here and does good works in hospitals as a cover, he is also married – albeit in a sham arrangement – and a former Olympic athlete, sufficient divergence I’d have thought for any resemblance to be muted or passed over. (Plus Savile wasn’t a murderer – as far as I know – and could he have taken the risk of litigation? Might that not have signalled his recognition of himself in the portrayal?)

I suppose the main attraction to this sort of thing is the possible insight into the mind of a killer and in particular in this case to the art of psychological profiling but I’ll not be in a hurry to read another McDermid.

Pedant’s Corner:- fit (fitted,) dissemblement (my dictionary gives dissemblance, but states it is rare. In any case inventing words isn’t impermissible.) “‘Play it as it lays.’” (Should be “as it lies” but it was in dialogue and so may have been true to the character.)

Scotland’s Favourite Book Update

You may have noticed from my sidebar I am currently reading Val McDermid’s The Wire in the Blood.

This is my latest from the list of Scotland’s Favourite Books I posted about here.

Of the thirty books shown there that will be 27 I will have read, the only exceptions being:
An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell which being written in Gaelic I could not attempt except in translation,
Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, which simply does not appeal to me, and
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.

That last is, along with Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, one of only two books to appear on all four lists of Scottish books I have slowly been working my way through.
(The other lists are:- the 100 best Scottish Books; the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books; the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.)

I have long doubted that Trainspotting could be as good as Sunset Song and have so far resisted its charms. One day I suppose I’ll bite that bullet but for now The Wire in the Blood is the last from this particular list.

Stark’s Park, Kirkcaldy (iii)

Yes, I know I’ve done this one twice before but on Saturday last we Sons fans had a new angle on the ground from the Railway Stand:-

Main and South Stands:-

The North Stand – named for local author and avid Rover Val McDermid. (It takes all sorts I suppose):-

Stark's Park, Kirkcaldy (i)

I’ve not done one of these for a while – and I’ve just realised I haven’t included East End Park, Dunfermline, in this series yet.

Stark’s Park, the home of Raith Rovers FC, is of course the Scottish Football Ground nearest to where I live. Since I started blogging though the Sons have only played there twice (and the last time, Oct 2012, I was between cameras.)

This is from the lower end of Pratt Street. From this angle you can’t see how unusual the older stand is.

Stark's Park, Kirkcaldy

This is from the upper end, nearer to my house. The McDermid Stand is nearest in this view. The bit further away, to the left, is the peculiar corner stand.

Stark's Park, Kirkcaldy, from Pratt Street

And this is the away stand, the McDermid Stand, from Pratt Street, showing how close the road is to the ground.

Stark' s Park, McDermid Stand

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