Out of Bounds - Val McDermid
Out of Bounds - Val McDermid ***
There have been disappointing signs of a softening in Val McDermid's crime fiction in recent years, and one or two downright badly plotted books. There's a sense then that the author is attempting to get back to basics in Out of Bounds by revisiting and expanding on her series about Edinburgh police officer, DCI Karen Pirie. As a detective for the Scottish Police Historical Crimes Unit, there's an opportunity here to bulild up a wider view of relevant Scottish issues, establishing connections between the past and the present, and - as seen in the Balkans investigation in McDermid's most recent DCI Pirie novel The Skeleton Road - extend that view out to Scotland's place in Europe and the wider world. With a strong focus on procedural and personality, it should be a winning combination, but for a variety of reasons McDermid doesn't make it work.
If only the author could apply the same kind of rigour to character that she applies to contemporary issues in her novels. Or perhaps that is inadvertently part of the problem. There are a number of modern investigative and procedural issues that are brought up in the two principal cases that take up much of Out of Bounds which tell us much about Scottish society in passing, but there are also a few hot topics that seem to be included just for colour, or worse, for what you might call "virtue-signalling" reasons. Whatever the reason for their inclusion, they aren't always a convincing fit, and there's a sense that McDermid doesn't handle them at all convincingly either.
If there's one issue that predominates in Out of Bounds and provides an intriguing prospect, it's the question of DNA analysis. This is undoubtedly an area of police investigation that is becoming increasingly important to units investigating historical cold cases. It's also an area that can open up glimpses into the very DNA of Scotland itself, revealing some uncomfortable truths that have never been explored or intentionally hushed up by a society unwilling to confront its past problems. Such a case comes to light when - in another contemporary social problem - a number of teenage deaths in a car stolen for a bit of drunken joyriding reveals a DNA clue to an unsolved rape case back in 1996.
It should be a straightforward matter for DCI Karen Pirie to trace back along the family line, but inevitably things don't prove to be all that simple, which it rarely is when families and inheritance are concerned. That's the case also in a separate investigation that Pirie becomes involved in. Even though the death of a local character appears to be nothing more than the suicide of an individual with mental health problems, there are events and coincidences to another high-profile unsolved case in the past - involving the death of a Northern Ireland Secretary of State in an apparent IRA terrorist bomb on a Cessna light aircraft - that set Karen off on an 'unofficial' line of investigation on a sensitive case that doesn't really fall under her remit.
McDermid has always been keen to incorporate elements inspired by real-life people and significant events into her crime fiction, which can lend an air of authenticity to the cases, but it doesn't always work. Here, any kind of attempt to involve real-life significance is unfortunately undermined by credibility issues, as the whole DNA aspect in that case spins off into the realms of fantasy, and some wish-fulfillment fantasy involving thinly-disguised public figures at that. McDermid's ripped from the front pages subjects of old have tended to degenerate more recently into gossip column page celebrity interest, resulting in the fiasco of The Vanishing Point a few years ago. Out of Bounds, with its fascination for missing fathers and reliance on DNA evidence makes it look like the author has been watching too much Jeremy Kyle lately.
It is potentially an interesting topic and there are some aspects of Scottish family life and social attitudes revealed through DCI Pirie's investigations, but McDermid/Pirie pursues the cases towards sensationalism rather than revelation. It's always a warning sign when one of McDermid's characters comes ponders over a situation and thinks something like "it was far-fetched, but not out of the question". Inevitably, things quickly become rather far-fetched after this, with DCI Pirie's methods of investigation becoming somewhat unorthodox and her superiors proving to be no match for her tenacity and cleverness at bending the rules to suit her purpose. It's fun, but there's very little challenge or tension generated in this.
Ultimately, it's this kind of broad characterisation that lets Out of Bounds down and doesn't give hope of much promise for further DCI Pirie investigations. There's nothing particularly wrong with Karen Pirie, it's just that she's a bit too good to be true, which suggests again that there is too much author identification wish-fulfilment applied to this strong female character. Her handling of some Syrian refugees for example, is certainly a contemporary Scottish issue worth addressing, but Karen Pirie takes a personal involvement in their plight further than most. To her credit McDermid does cleverly find a valid plot purpose for them late in the book, but essentially they have no real relevance to the cases and are just there to signal how great a person Karen Pirie is for caring about such matters.
You suspect that McDermid could do a lot more with this material if only she didn't love her main character quite so much. It seems only natural to treat them as tough, hard-working, flawless, saintly individuals who are incapable of expressing the slightest thought or deed that could be in any way controversial, insensitive or politically incorrect - other than towards crudely characterised incompetent male bosses of course - but it actually turns out to make her hero quite bland. McDermid has been more guilty of this in the recent past, as if she's afraid that anyone would identify the author herself as being anything less than perfect.
All of this however may just be being overly-particular in one's expectations and hoping for a bit more than is actually delivered. Out of Bounds is an entertaining police procedural, well-researched with the author's characteristic diligence, opening up some new areas that are worthy further exploration. In the cold case investigations of DCI Karen Pirie, we do have a developing series that has the potential to offer many interesting insights into contemporary Scottish culture, society and crime along the way. If the author and her main character are willing to get a little more gritty with the material there could be potential in this yet, but it does look like those days are long gone now.
Out of Bounds by Val McDermid is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 25 August 2016.