The Skeleton Road
Val McDermid
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Buy *The Skeleton Road* by Val McDermidonline

The Skeleton Road
Val McDermid
Grove Press
423 pages
December 2015
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Skeleton Road.

In her tense murder mystery, McDermid combines an eight-year-old disappearance and a recent murder to the siege of Dubrovnik and the crimes of the Serbian War. This “city on the sea” is a convergence of two worlds: the site of Oxford professor Maggie Blake’s affair with a Croatian general and the violence that plummeted a disintegrating Yugoslavia into even more chaos.

The tale begins in desolate, eerily beautiful Scotland under the decaying roof of the condemned John Drummond. On a cold Saturday morning a skeleton is found, its skull still grinning cross the brickwork. Clearly the scatter of bones was once a human being. Called to the scene are DI Karen Pirie and DI Jason “the Mint” Murray of Scotland Historic Cases Unit. Neither detective can quite believe that the body has been lodged in such a confined space. The interior of the building was restricted, and the building itself has stood derelict for over twenty years.

Identifying the skeleton is top priority. The investigation takes Karen to the College of St. Scolastica, Oxford, and into the life of Professor Maggie Blake, an ardent feminist who has made a career from lecturing and writing about Balkan geopolitics. Turning fifty and haunted by her time living at the center of the war, Maggie remains fixated on the memory of her tempestuous affair with fiery Croatian General Dimitar “Mitja” Petrovic, who walked out on her without a final farewell eight years before.

Maggie is deeply aggravated when contacted by Karen, who thinks she has at last found the remains of Mitja. Only Maggie’s best friend, human rights lawyer Tessa Minogue, offers Maggie a measure of solace amid her crippling grief. Gorgeous, raven-haired Tessa tells Karen that, yes, Maggie and Mitja did have a complicated, tumultuous relationship, but she cannot for the life of her explain why the man suddenly vanished from their lives. As the years drifted past and there was no word from Mitja, Maggie had become used to a silence more profound than she’d ever known in the Balkans.

In spite of a series of roadblocks, Karen remains steadfast, haunted by the specter of General Petrovic and his formidable reputation that more than likely fostered enemies. As the case moves forward, Karen reminds herself that she has a job to do and is well aware that everyone involved in the case--including Maggie and Tess--are holding secrets. Karen has nowhere to turn except her victim’s distant past. Although there’s nothing in Petrovic’s Oxford life to point toward murder, his history is complicated, encompassing some of the bloodiest conflicts of the twentieth century.

A series of clues lead Karen into the orbit of Alan Macanespie and Theo Proctor, employees of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Both men are looking for Petrovic, convinced he was involved in the brutal murder of Serbian war criminal Miroslav Simunovic. The result for both parties is an unexpected boon, as is the serpentine nature of the investigation taking Maggie and Karen on the trail to Croatia. Here they learn about a shocking massacre and terrible carnage indicative of the complexities of war. However terrible the revelations, Maggie finally has the chance to revisit her history and face the events that  shaped her.

From Edinburgh to the streets of Glasgow to Oxford, where the City’s gleaming church spires create a majestic sense of history, to the deceptively bucolic countryside of Croatia, where the “killing fields” hold the metaphorical skeletons of the past, McDermid creates a furtive sense of danger: Maggie and Mitja’s passionate affair amidst the siege of Dubrovnik; the missing Mitja; and Karen‘s efforts to find the identity of the skeleton after an eight-year slumber.

As the threads of the complicated tale are tied up, old animosities surface and missing persons are finally accounted for. Throughout, Karen remains spirited and tough-minded, always a joy to experience as she finally realizes that only she holds the key to the whereabouts of enigmatic General Petrovic and to the identity of a ruthless killer, unable and unwilling to put their desire for revenge to rest.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2014

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