Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Late in the Day.
Consistent and reliable, Val McDermid is a mystery writer who never disappoints. Dense plotting and believable characters reflect both Scottish history and the push of modernity that has changed investigative techniques, but never the humanity that defines the world of crime or those who serve and protect.
When Detective Constable Karen Pirie, of Police Scotland's Historical Cases Unit, stumbles across a murder in the Highlands, she is quick to claim it for her unit, even as the locals resist her overtures. Reluctantly, the Highland police concede jurisdiction when the dead body's particulars tie it to the past, along with carefully preserved artifacts that date to the mid-1940s.
McDermid sets the stage for a layered plot that has its roots in the final days of World War II, when weary troops depart the battlefields for their home countries and the inevitable chaos provides opportunities, greed and the temptation of black-market artifacts. Two perfectly maintained motorbikes become a buried treasure for a granddaughter to unearth. No one anticipates a body added many years later, posthumously guarding the wartime booty, all perfectly preserved.
Still grieving the loss of her mate, Pirie is grateful for this new case: a young man murdered 20 years before, who left few clues behind to explain his disappearance. This mix of old and new, the threads wound from one era to another and the characters attached, are McDermid's sweet spot. Her prose is always fresh, events dramatized in the time they occur, chapters falling into place whether in wartime or the present. There's a sojourn in the final days of world war, where espionage, reconnaissance and sabotage propel the behaviors that lead to two buried motorbikes in pristine condition, waiting for discovery. It is his misfortune that a young man agrees to help a stranger dig up the artifacts decades later, only to become the third object in a peat moss grave.
Much as she loves her work, Detective Inspector Pirie's Historical Case Unit is fraught with the politics of a modernized Police Scotland in the person of Associate Chief Constable Ann Markle. Hoping to sabotage the maddeningly successful Pirie, Markle has planted a new detective in the Historical Crimes Unit, transferred from Glasgow to Edinburgh, his sole task to report his observations directly back to the Chief Constable. Obsessively ambitions, Markle is relentless, though Pirie refuses to be cowed, The remote Highland murder case eventually escapes the more rugged locals, spreading to the lofty echelons of power in a climactic--and shocking--arrest.
A successful conclusion to the case, while enhancing Pirie's reputation, only postpones the inevitable reckoning with the devious Markle. But the future is hopeful, a rugged Highlander met at the start of the murder case hoping to see more of Karen Pirie. McDermid's talent for melding human nature with homicidal intentions brings her mysteries vividly to life, a combination of murder and mayhem and those who track them down. McDermid's mysteries resonate with the authenticity of a country besieged by human hubris against a majestic Scottish background.