Out of Bounds

Val McDermid


Published 6 December 2016 by Atlantic Monthly Press

Read from 4 November to 6 November 2016

“She walked. Whenever sleep slipped from her grasp, she walked. It occurred to her that her life had come to resemble the first draft of an advertising script for Guinness or Stella Artois. ‘She walks. That’s what she does.’ Except that there was no brightly lit pub full of cheery faces waiting to greet her at the end of her wanderings.

Often at the end of the day, she knew there was no point in stripping to the skin and sliding between cool sheets. She would only lie stiff as a corpse, thoughts of murder running in her head, frantic hamsters on a wheel.”

When a teenage joyrider crashes a stolen Land Rover and ends up in a coma, he unwittingly reveals a connection to an unsolved rape—murder from two decades ago. DCI Karen Pirie, head of Scotland’s ‘Historical Crime Unit’ (HCU) tackles the complicated investigation and in doing so, finds herself tangled in the mystery of a 22-year-old suspected terrorist bombing. Out of Bounds is Val McDermid’s 30th novel - it’s a remarkable achievement, and if McDermid is blessed with the longevity of her predecessor to the throne as Queen of Crime Fiction (P.D. James), she’s hitting her stride early.

Val McDermid has always positioned her DCI Karen Pirie books as standalone. But how many standalones can you write until you’ve written a series? The answer is 4 (this being the third with Karen front-and-centre). McDermid acknowledges that DCI Pirie was never meant to be a series character, but when ideas about cold cases came to mind, Karen came knocking. McDermid builds a picture of Karen’s backstory early, and drops necessary details into the mix when required, so there’s no great need to read the series in order to get the most from this novel.

In Out of Bounds, Karen’s life is coloured by grief following the tragic death of her husband and colleague, Phil. She’s using work as a crutch to hold things together, to get through the days and the long, lonely nights. At night she walks the streets of Edinburgh to stave off the throws of insomnia, gifting us the joy of place and Karen the opportunity to make connections (both with people and between events in her concurrent investigations) that those blessed with sleep cannot. Resentment of the HCU from ‘real’ front-line police creates terrific dramatic tension, and the plot moves along at good pace.

Out of Bounds considers how families live with the impact of violent crime long after the media and public have forgotten their suffering. It weaves two complex mysteries together, something McDermid does with skill and in a way that acknowledges the reality of police work - that there is never just one case on the go. She weaves grief, terrorism, murder, social justice and forensics into a rich examination of modern-Scottish justice. And just as her previous DCI Karen Pirie book The Skeleton Road considered the Balkan conflict, here we look at the politics of place through a friendship formed with a group of Syrian refugees on Karen’s night walks through Edinburgh.

When researching advances in science for her non-fiction title Forensics, McDermid spoke with two detectives from the Greater Manchester police. A passing comment about the use of ‘familial DNA’ to identify an offender through not an exact match between DNA evidence collected at a crime scene and the UK’s national DNA database, but a merely a strong resemblance, sparked a question for McDermid. If an offender could be located through a strong resemblance between DNA at a crime scene and the DNA of a sibling or parent, what implication does the complicated nature of modern family relationships have on this advance in science?

Indeed the strength of this book is the insight it gives to the changing face of cold case investigations. It showcases the techniques we have now to look back and re-examine old crimes in the light of scientific development and poses great questions for crime writers and readers alike about how confident those who think they’ve ‘gotten away’ with things might be that the past will stay where it is, and what they might do to keep it that way.

And so McDermid finds herself back in the arms of DCI Karen Pirie, her cold case go-to gal. I get the feeling that Karen is just getting started. This is Val McDermid at her procedural best - a gripping read for an avid fan or holiday-reader alike.

**As an aside, Val McDermid is one of those authors whose own voice narrates her novels in my head as I read (Fife accent and all!). If you’d like to give this internal-imitation a try, head over to UKTV’s podcast A Stab in the Dark, hosted by Mark Billingham, and listen to Val talking about Out of Bounds and her views on TV adaptations.