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by Val McDermid
Harper Collins, January 2009
368 pages
ISBN: 0061688983

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In March of 1984 one of the most defining events of the decade began in the United Kingdom. The coal miners (one of the most powerful unions in the country) went on strike, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher determined to break the union and win the strike. As months went by, the situation of the miners and their families grew bleak. Money was gone. Jobs did not exist. The small coal mining villages in in Fife, Scotland were desperate and people were hanging on by their fingernails.

It was then that Mick Preston, miner, went missing. His wife and daughter assumed that he had gone with five other miners south to Nottingham to work as strike breakers, and they cut off all communications with him. In the present, however, his daughter desperately needs to find him. Her son is ill from a rare condition, and she needs to find a suitable bone marrow donor. It is then that she discovers that her father is not in Nottingham and no one knows where he might be. She goes to the Cold Case Squad headed by Detective Inspector Karen Pirie to find her father.

At the same time journalist Bel Richmond stumbles over some new evidence in a notorious crime that happened in January, 1985. The daughter and grandson of a wealthy industrialist were kidnapped and, in a botched ransom exchange, his daughter was killed. The industrialist calls in the Cold Case squad to reopen the case.

McDermid's use of time is intriguing. As you read, you must pay careful attention to the dates at the beginning of each segment. She moves back and forth in time from 1984-1985 to the present and back and forth in the present. The story thus comes in bits and pieces and unfolds slowly and intriguingly before our eyes. It is a deft and flawless example of how to involve the reader in the events of the story.

The backdrop to the two cold cases is the infamous miners' strike. The descriptions of the bitterness of the miners and their families, the hopelessness they were beginning to feel, the impoverishment of these people is pictured with great sensitivity and understanding. The destitute villages form a striking contrast with the gentrified towns of the present. But the bitterness remains. This is a very personal story since Val McDermid was the daughter of a coal miner and grew up in a mining community in Scotland.

The characters are very well developed. Karen Pirie, the detective inspector, is three dimensional. She is a rather dumpy woman, as she herself notes, very competent, and very intimidating to her boss. She, of course, is inwardly not nearly so secure. Bel Richmond is also believable, a journalist clawing her way to success and not much caring how she gets there, also sharp and quick-witted. The industrialist, Sir Broderick, is more stereotypical, much what we expect a wealthy man to be, gruff, self-indulgent, and demanding. Other, supporting characters, are also well described.

The plot pulls the reader in immediately and then leads her on a merry chase, twisting, turning, seeming to suggest one thing, then another. Some of the elements I guessed at long before the detective got there; some came as a complete surprise to me. It's a technique that keeps the reader involved and absorbed to the very end.

This is the sort of book that I savor, reading, enjoying, putting it aside for a bit as I don't want it to end, but needing to get back to it almost as soon as I close it. Readers expect great stories from McDermid and she has delivered once again.

Reviewed by Sally A. Fellows, January 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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