Book review: Broken Ground by Val McDermid (Karen Pirie #5)

broken ground val mcdermidOne of the storylines in Broken Ground is that DCI Karen Pirie’s scheming boss is trying to get rid of her. On this showing, my sympathies are with the boss.

This is what Pirie does in a single week: interfere in a case in which she is a witness, be rude and aggressive to a witness in her own investigation, socialise with a potential suspect, take on a case before getting official clearance and assault another police officer. (There’s more but I’d have to give spoilers.)

There’s nothing wrong with having a dodgy cop as your protagonist, but we are constantly told how brilliant Pirie is and that she has a fantastic clear-up rate. The trouble is, in this book we don’t see her doing anything impressive. All she seems to do all day is eat and moan about the traffic (we also get exhaustive details about the parking arrangements at the various locations she visits).

I’m all for local colour, I used to live in Edinburgh so it’s nice to revisit landmarks, but there are so many namechecks for cafes and restaurants (and even a particular supermarket’s wine) that I was sure McDermid must have a product placement deal. Among all this we are told that Pirie has lost weight, which is about as convincing as the claims of her brilliance.

The case itself is quite interesting, revolving round buried World War 2 loot in the Highlands and a body in a peat bog. However the team establish who their suspect is quite early on, and elements of the story are told in flashback which often repeat what we already know. The end is more grandstanding than dramatic climax and a number of subplots are left dangling.

McDermid is often praised for the accuracy of her use of forensics and has even written a non-fiction book on the subject. But it seems that the commitment to realism does not extend to the rest of her work. Are we really expected to believe that a DCI spends her day looking up birth certificates online, or travelling hundreds of miles on a routine enquiry for elimination purposes? Without even ringing ahead to check if the person she intends to speak to is in?

Broken Ground also introduces a new team member who is childishly rude and insubordinate to Pirie from the start. I found this unconvincing. The police have a strict hierarchy and expectations about behaviour. Of course officers find ways to disrespect and undermine their superiors, but it would be both more realistic and more interesting to see him do it with subtlety. Similarly, Pirie’s boss is a caricature and her motivation for her attacks on Pirie is thin.

Despite everything, the pages keep turning. To use a food analogy (which seems particularly appropriate in this case) it’s like a takeaway that doesn’t taste great and you know won’t do you any good, but it has just the right confection of salt, fat and sugar to make you go on eating.

What frustrates me is the fact that McDermid, like her creation, is capable of so much more. The early Jordan and Hill books, in particular, combined complex characterisation with dramatic storylines and an emotional resonance that stayed with me long after I’d forgotten the plots. Maybe it’s easy for her to turn out a book that’s good enough. But I wish she’d go deep and write something great.

I received a copy of Broken Ground from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Broken Ground on Goodreads

Looking back I see I enjoyed Val McDermid’s last Karen Pirie novel much more than this one! Read my review of Out of Bounds



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