Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Skeleton Road.
McDermid has penned an unusual mystery that begins in modern-day Scotland but has deep tentacles in the past in the tragic history of the Balkans in the 1990s. When a skeleton is discovered in the parapet of a Victorian building in Edinburgh closed to the public for over twenty years, Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of Police Scotland has the unenviable task of identifying the victim, a hole in the skull indicating a homicide. With the assistance of modern forensic technology and old-school police work, Pirie is fairly certain that the skeleton belongs to Dimitar Petrovic (known as Mitja), a general in the Croatian-Serbian conflict.
Her research takes her to Oxford, England, Detective Jason Murray doing his utmost to make himself useful and not get in Pirie’s way, though his obtuseness is often tiring to his superior. In Oxford, they interview Professor Maggie Blake, who was present during the Balkan conflict and became Mitja’s lover, the two living in Oxford after the war. The professor’s reaction to Pirie’s questions and her insistence upon the presence of her lawyer and best friend, Tessa Minogue, lead the detective to believe that there is far more to the story—and Mitja’s sudden disappearance eight years earlier—than they had previously anticipated. The identity of the killer is a puzzle, one that may have begun long ago in the war.
Professor Blake has no idea why Mitja left so unexpectedly or why. The meeting with Pirie puts closure to her assumption that he has returned to the land that he loved, living with the pain of his absence and the personal rejection it implies. Now DNA results may finally put an end to her questions. While Pirie investigates the death of the unknown man she hopes is Petrovic, activities have begun on another front: an investigation into the murders of war criminals assassinated before their pending trials, a single killer delivering swift justice. Two lawyers for the International Criminal Tribune for the Former Yugoslavia have been making inquiries about the assassinations, turning their interest to General Petrovic and hoping for answers from Maggie Blake. Soon Pirie finds herself juggling the international complications of the homicide discovered in her territory, one with geopolitical implications and a convoluted history that will require a visit to post-war Croatia to put the mystery into perspective.
McDermid’s narrative strength lies in the character of her protagonist. Pirie is an “everywoman” police detective whose instinct for critical investigation yields results in the most complicated of circumstances, a resourceful woman with a surprisingly fulfilling personal life in her relationship with fellow detective Phil Parhatka, of the Murder Prevention Team. Pirie’s unique combination of perseverance and curiosity allows her insight into the world of an academic who has fallen in love with a handsome general and has made his cause her own. A trip to Croatia, where she runs into Professor Blake, informs Pirie’s understanding of the horrors endured by the region and the deep scars borne by the victims, her love for Phil providing empathy for the bond between Professor Blake and her Croatian general.
McDermid blends past and present in a disturbing exploration of war and its aftermath. Unexpected circumstances thrusts Pirie into a private nightmare while she pursues the answer to a dark puzzle born in Croatia, culminating in murder on a lonely parapet in Scotland: one more unnecessary tragedy.