Savage Ridge by Morgan Greene

Morgan Greene’s new thriller, Savage Ridge, is named for the tiny Northwest US town where the action takes place. Ten years before the now of the story, three teenage best friends—Nicholas Pips, Emmy Nailer, and Peter Sachs—committed murder. (Not a spoiler; you find this out on page one.) Though they were suspects in the crime, an air-tight alibi set them free. For the last decade, they have been deliberately out of touch with each other, scattered across the western United States. Now, within days of each other, they’ve arrived back at their home town, where the ghosts of the past confront them on every street and around every corner. Coincidence? Not a chance.

The story is told in chapters that alternate then and now—the time of the murder and the current day. And they alternate perspectives—mostly those of Nicholas Pips; the long-time sheriff, Barry Poplar; Ellison Saint John, son of the wealthiest man in the valley and brother of the deceased, Sammy Saint John; and Sloane Yo, a private detective Ellison has hired to reexamine the case. Her first assignment—bring all three of them back—is a success.

Sachs has thrived in his new life away from Savage Ridge, Pips has had a mediocre decade, and Nailer is a mess. None of them escapes the guilt they feel about the murder, no matter how much they reassure each other that it was wholly justified. The crime looms over them like the steep hillsides loom over the town, their pine forests jagged sentinels against the sky, ever watching, and darkening the outlook of the people below. Nor are the three friends exactly the same people they were ten years before and, as the story progresses, the absolute trust they once had in each other is increasingly, dangerously, shaky.

Yo’s investigations reveal Sammy was much disliked by his classmates and had zero friends. He was not the golden boy his father and brother pretend he was, but the product of an entitled, autocratic, abusive man. Now, ten years later, the father is dying, and Ellison desperately hopes that, by pinning the crime on his only suspects—Pips, Nailer, and Sachs—he can gain his father’s respect at last. If it isn’t soon, it will be too late.

The story is an interesting kind of psychological thriller, because of the careful construction of the mental states of the three killers. Their reactions, their jockeying with Yo (who circles ever-closer) and with each other create much of the tension.

Savage Ridge is also a fascinating study of small-town life. Everyone knows everyone else, everyone has felt the overweening power of the Saint John family.

For me, this book was a real page-turner. Although you know all along who committed the crime, the why is unstated for a long time. Meanwhile, the characterizations are so strong, I found myself really invested in the fates of all three of the friends, and Sloane Yo, too.

EQMM – March/April 2024

A great plot keeps you reading, compelling characters make you care. But in my case it’s the love of words that brings a smile to my face. Authors using them in clever new ways. Painting indelible pictures with them. Hinting to me that they love the language as much as I do.

The short stories in the current issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine show once again that mystery writers can be just as expert at manipulating the English language as their more literary cousins. So many excellent stories in terms of the plot/character/setting basics, plus a couple whose deft prose grabbed my attention.

First, let me mention Bill Pronzini’s story, “The Finger,” because it has an affinity with this theme. His character is a successful and prolific writer of international suspense novels who has been known to crank out a 100,000-word thriller in just five weeks. Clearly, this man writes at a devilish speed, aided by superb touch typing skills. When an infection causes him to lose the little finger of his right hand, his typing speed plummets and, worse, the cascade of ideas that propelled that lightning pace has dried up too. Instead, Pronzini writes, “the innovative similes and metaphors that were the hallmarks of his work came less easily and tended to be trite instead of original. The prose stuttered and bumbled.”  

In this collection, there are several examples of “innovative similes and metaphors” that this nine-fingered author could have been justly proud of, in my opinion, and no stuttering and bumbling. Here are three examples I especially admired:

In Nils Gilbertson’s unsentimental story “Apple Juice,” he describes this scene: “By the time he reached the barn, night had turned to early morn and sun shone through bare trees, their branches like petrified veins against the cornflower sky.” Petrified veins. I look at my hands and see that instantly.

The EQMM Department of First Stories offers “Murder Under Sedation” by Lawrence Ong, and though this is his first detective story in EQMM, he rips off a clever putdown of every dreary dental waiting room everywhere: “I scanned the magazines on the rack to count how many are still in print before turning my attention to the waiting room’s other occupant.” I laughed.

“Turnabout” by Sheila Kohler contains a short passage, a model of subtlety, that conveys more meaning than some entire novels. The narrator and her longtime friend Jane walk into Jane’s husband’s study, where he and another visitor, Sergei, sit in armchairs opposite each other, smoking and not speaking. “It was something about the silence, I think, that spoke so clearly to me, or perhaps the way they were looking at one another, something in the brown-green and the blue-grey eyes which, young though I was, I recognized. I looked at Jane. Did she, smart girl that she was, understand what was going on?”

Great job, one and all!

It’s a Fast-Changing World. It’s the 1880s!

Each Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery volume, published by Belanger Books, includes at least a dozen stories, filling in the years 1881-1886. Holmes and Watson were already together then, but Watson was uncharacteristically quiet about their adventures. In Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, contemporary writers make up for Watson’s reticence, creating excellent adventures to help fill in the gap.

Naturally, the challenges in writing a story set almost 140 years ago are significant. No cell phones, no video surveillance, no DNA evidence, no criminal databases, and no other scientific or organizational trappings modern crime stories employ. I asked my fellow authors whether these differences are a help with their stories or a hindrance. Here’s what they said:

The Victorian setting allows for a more “classical” mystery, says George Gardner. For his story, he researched how much the Victorians knew about dynamite. He admits that he “may have bent some rules in terms of chronology there,” but since dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel in 1866, George is on pretty solid ground, it seems.

The Victorian setting “is an advantage more than a hindrance as the instantaneousness of modern communications can get in the way of a good story,” says Kevin Thornton. The telegraph is the fastest communications technology available to Holmes, and in Thornton’s two stories, he makes good use of it. Another advantage, says George Jacobs, is that he can “keep Holmes’s mind at the forefront of the adventure.” What’s more, “having to rush around London (or farther afield) on foot or in a cab, and sometimes engage in fisticuffs with the villains” adds to the adventure.

The authors strive to be sure that not just the technology, but “the feel of every story is right,” too, says Katy Darby. This includes language and dialog, style and social etiquette, and even making sure the types of characters are true to their times. How to accomplish this? Darby says, “The 1860s-1880s is my second home, period-wise, and my Victorian library is ever-growing.” Shelby Phoenix noted what is an extra attraction of the Victorian era for her: It “allows for so many more paranormal approaches, and who can say no to making things seem spooky?”

It’s really a balance. By setting a story in the Victorian era, authors avoid having modern technology “short-circuit the elaborate investigation” they’d planned. Nevertheless, Holmes’s era was one of rapid scientific and technological progress, and authors must pinpoint when these advances took hold, says D.J. Tyrer. Over the period in which the Holmes stories are set—roughly 1885 to 1914—much about society, science, and politics changed. But, “whatever level of technology Holmes has access to,” says author Paul Hiscock, “I always see him as being at the cutting edge of forensic science.” Whatever the technological details, “a good mystery is about how the detective puts all the pieces of evidence together.”

Many authors say that one of the aspects of writing in that era that they like best is delving into those details. As an example, Kevin Thornton’s two linked stories involving shenanigans related to new North American transcontinental railways offered numerous enticing rabbit holes for this author to pursue. As Watson extols the excitement of shortening travel times, Holmes points out that “as the citizenry disperses, so does crime.” This observation foreshadows a visit from a representative of the much-indebted Canadian Pacific Railroad, fearful of a hostile takeover. Watson needs an explanation of this financial predicament, which leads to a lucid explanation of the constraints faced by a publicly traded company. Other examples of Thornton’s research include descriptions of the myriad ways Holmes could visually identify an American, military training, Eastern martial arts, American railroad moguls, the action of poison, and the lineage of the Earl of Derby, the Honourable Frederick Stanley. (In 1888, Stanley became Governor General of Canada, and Thornton helpfully notes that the famous hockey trophy is named for him.)

See how these authors put fact and fiction together. Their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885 are:
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada” and “Tracked Across America”
George Jacobs – “The Mystery of the Cloven Cord”
Katy Darby – “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital”
Shelby Phoenix – “Sherlock Holmes and the Six-Fingered Hand Print”
D.J. Tyrer – “The Japanese Village Mystery”
Paul Hiscock – “The Light of Liberty”

Deep Freeze by Michael Grumley

If you’d like to write a creepily exciting medical thriller set in the near future, you could do worse than Michael C. Grumley did in his new medical/techno-thriller, Deep Freeze. Like him, you might want to consider the consequences of the hubristic quest for immortality. Who would want such a thing? What massive ego is required to even contemplate it? And, at a technical level, how could science make it possible?

Lifespan extension is a hot topic today that extends beyond the laboratory into policymaking or even, you might say, philosophy. The conceptual seeds for a changed mindset about the inevitability of aging have already been planted. An effort is afoot to have aging declared a disease—a Pandora’s box for sure—which will legitimate medical research aimed at making aging “curable,” even reversible.

The bedrock requirement of medical and science-based thrillers is the believability of the underlying science. It may not be technically correct, and if it involves the future, it may never come to pass. Yet, the science must carry authority, with enough detail to be persuasive, but without turning into a textbook. Michael Crichton was a master at this; Neal Stephenson is too. It’s clear Grumley has done his research. He brings together several advances in medical science that might address some of the inherent challenges of enhanced longevity. Yet I wasn’t able to totally suspend disbelief, in part because his characters didn’t think like the many doctors and researchers I’ve worked with.

In an isolated research center in the Arizona desert some twenty years in the future, Grumley writes, medical scientists are working on a one-of-a-kind technology. You very soon get an inkling that everything in the running of the lab is not on the up-and-up. The sophisticated machine that Rachel Souza (a vascular physician) and her friend, technician Henry Yamada, are testing is designed to warm a frozen body (think cryogenics) very slowly. The machine has worked on animals, and the story begins with the first human test, an attempt to thaw the frozen body of former US Army Special Forces veteran John Reiff. Clearly, the stakes are high.

And they are successful. As Reiff gradually regains both physical and mental capacity, he senses Rachel and Henry aren’t completely honest about where he is and what the project is all about. But those uneasy feelings are nothing compared to the shock of learning he’s been kept in a frozen state by someone, somewhere, for twenty-two years. From the point he becomes aware of what’s happened to him, the story becomes a frantic scramble for Rachel, Henry, and Reiff’s survival (ironic, given the book’s overall theme). It becomes much like a conventional cat-and-mouse thriller.

Determinedly, almost naively, optimistic, Rachel takes much too long to recognize that all isn’t as it should be in the lab. Blinders on, she wasn’t convincing. Nor did I believe in the story’s villains—they were cardboard-cutout-evil.

Grumley maneuvers around the project’s ethical issues by eventually describing how, during the period Reiff was frozen, the world economy, governments, and social systems totally imploded. Traditional norms were abandoned. That’s such a major piece of context, it would have helped to have it much sooner—and in convincing detail. It also explains the odd anti-government allusions that occur earlier in the story. Several major pieces of the story are left hanging and will probably be the subject of subsequent books in this series (this is Book 1).

This medical thriller has a strong opening and includes several quite likeable and interesting characters. It provides a lot to think about, too, at multiple levels. You can’t quite hear about certain new medical advances without recalling it.

Broadcast Blues: New from Dick Belsky

Now that we’ve reached the sixth in former New York City newsman Dick Belsky’s mystery series featuring Channel 10 News Director Clare Carlson, picking up Broadcast Blues is like a rendezvous with an old friend. Belsky is a former newspaperman, as was Clare before her paper folded, and both of them tend to look down just a wee bit on the sometimes dubious journalistic standards of their on-air colleagues.

Clare’s snarky, self-deprecating sense of humor isn’t universally appreciated around the newsroom, at least by her boss, but as a reader I love it! Even better, she immediately recognizes where a story lies, has a bulldog’s determination to get to the bottom of it, and a keen sense of how to tell it. All her nights out, morning coffee stops, minor deceptions, and manipulation of the information machine take place in a Manhattan that is quite obviously the author’s home turf. His New York, like his newsroom, is the real deal.

This story begins with a page from a diary written by former cop and now private detective Wendy Kyle: ‘If you’re reading this, I’m already dead,’ it says. In fact, Kyle is dead, victim of a bomb planted in her car and set to explode when she opened the door. But who’d want to silence her? Clare’s keen to find out.

Kyle left the NYPD on not the greatest terms, accusing her commanding officer of attempted sexual assault. The client list for her agency, Heartbreaker Investigations, is mainly women out to prove marital infidelity. Loaded with some of New York’s richest and most powerful men, that list might generate some suspects. But the police declare the case closed. They say Kyle was killed by her ex-husband who wrote a confessional note then conveniently committed suicide. Clare doesn’t buy it.

Channel 10 is up for sale, and who knows what new ownership may bring. Clare has always been the station’s news director as well as an on-air reporter who breaks some of its biggest stories. Her boss repeatedly tells her to drop the Wendy Kyle case and focus on her management job, especially at a time of organizational uncertainty. A protagonist who won’t back off is a standard trope in crime fiction, and when it comes to Clare Carlson, everything about her tells you she’ll stick with it, regardless.

On a personal level, Clare is nearing her fiftieth birthday (kudos to Belsky for not creating another thirty-year-old, size six protagonist) and tells everyone who’ll listen that she’s not at all fussed about that milestone, but she does keep bringing it up. The author has a way of devising a story that is engaging, believable, and moves forward at the rapid pace of the 24-hour news cycle, and his character Clare Carlson is unfailingly entertaining. Naturally, you want Clare to succeed here, not just for Wendy Kyle’s sake, but also because Clare’s dedication to getting the truth out is something that deserves to carry on. Another win for Belsky!

Weird Synchonicities

Or is that synchronisms? What I mean is when two unrelated things turn out to have something in common after all. Or when two totally different aspects of your life come together in an unexpected way. We’ve all had that experience, and the immediate reaction is, “Hmm. Weird.”

So, as a crime writer, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that in working on my family genealogy, the matter of crime comes up. Like the mysterious death of an ancestor in colonial Virginia and the two murders my family was involved in. (Stories for another time.) Looking back through old newspapers, I found a juicy crime story concerning my second cousin, twice removed, whose 25-year-old wife shot and killed her 18-year-old sister, because of her husband’s attention to the younger woman. The young sister must have been quite something, because a subsequent story said public sympathy was with the accused, and an acquittal was expected.  

Having vaguely in mind the kind of gems those old newspapers can hold, I was drawn to a recent story in the Library of Virginia newsletter. It reports on the results of a patron’s random inquiry into the nearly century-old newspaper record regarding far southwest Wise County veterinarian, game warden, and lawman JL Cox. The Library staff’s research found police-media relations were just as fraught back then as they are now.

A 1927 story in Crawford’s Weekly reported the attempted arrest of a man on outstanding warrants. Refusing to surrender, the man threatened the officers, including Cox, who’d come to get him. “We had to be shoot or be shot,” Cox told the paper. He said, “Some folks may criticize, but I’d like to know what they would have done had they been in our place.”

Two weeks later, Cox was involved in another exchange of gunfire. But a few days later, after Cox complained about the coverage of the event, the newspaper issued a correction, saying Cox had not returned fire. Over the next couple of years, Cox repeatedly called on the newspaper to correct stories about his activities. It’s a distant echo of today’s uneasy relation between law enforcement and the media.

After this frequent pushback, it appears the newspaper adopted a policy of not abrading Cox’s thin skin. The way I read some of the Weekly’s later stories, the editors learned to get their digs in more subtly: “Some may have criticized Dr. J.L. Cox, county officer, for being quick on the trigger in past performances . . .” Note the vague “some.” Politicians still use that gambit today. “People tell me . . .”

In a story about a stolen car, the paper suggested that “whoever did it thought they were wreaking vengeance on County Officer JL Cox, whose Chrysler also is a maroon coupe, because of his unrelenting enforcement of prohibition, traffic, and game laws.” Readers of Crawford’s Weekly might have had strong opinions about those laws and how vigorously they should be enforced. Talking about his “unrelenting enforcement” might not have been viewed as a tribute to his dedication. It was moonshine country, after all. (A moonshiner’s wrecked car and cargo shown above, police officer standing by.)

It turns out that Cox may have been too diligent for rural Virginia, and in 1931, he was shot and killed trying to serve a warrant on a man for dynamiting fish in the Guest River. The man claimed self-defense, but the case was dismissed. Why? Doc Cox “had been fooling with” the man’s wife. That story never appeared in the newspaper; the Library staff found it in the memoir written by the Game Warden who succeeded Cox in that post. The conclusion that can be drawn from this little research project by the Library is, I suppose, that times change, but people don’t.

The Great Gimmelmans

Lee Matthew Goldberg’s title for his new crime novel–The Great Gimmelmans–sounds like the name of a circus act. And, indeed, the story includes masks, taking on roles, daring feats, and surprising actions, all most definitely like a circus. While in its early stages, you may be inclined to believe—in fact, you may fervently hope—that what is presented as Aaron Gimmelman’s memoir is the recounting of a light-hearted romp. It is not, and the author takes pains to foreshadow the darkness to come.

Twelve-year-old Aaron and his family—father Barry, mother Judith, sister Stephanie (16), and sister Jenny (8)—live an upper middle-class life in suburban New Jersey until Barry loses his job, and their house and nearly all their belongings are repossessed. Left with a few clothes and a campervan the collection agency didn’t know they own, they pile everything into the vehicle’s small space and head south. Nicknamed the Gimmelmans’ Getaway Gas-Guzzler, the camper threatens to exhaust every penny they have in the first few hundred miles, until, in desperation, Aaron robs a convenience store. Barry recognizes a good idea when he hears one and begins to plot other robberies—liquor stores, then a small bank. The farther south they travel, the more grandiose his ideas, the bigger the robbery targets. He ropes every family member into commission of the crimes, even Jenny.

They’re headed toward the Florida home of Judith’s mother, who has become an Orthodox Jew. She’s a hard case—prickly and judgmental. She’s never liked Barry, and as the story progresses, her criticisms seem more than justified. The contrast between her world, extreme in its own way, and that of her daughter and her family of talented lawbreakers is a head-spinning example of competing realities. It can be hard to know whom to root for.

Many humorous moments are sprinkled throughout, but author Goldberg makes his characters so real, I couldn’t set aside my anxiety about the increasing dangers they face—from the armed robberies, from an alcoholic FBI agent, and from a New Jersey mobster Barry has cheated.

Barry Gimmelman takes his family—and readers—on a wild ride at such a pace that family members rarely have time to stop and think. You may wonder how such a deluded individual ever operated as a stock trader. Or maybe that was the perfect job for him. Hope overcoming caution every time. Until . . . This crime thriller has received several award nominations (Anthony, Lefty), not, you’ll understand, from the Good Parenting Association. Yesterday I posted about establishing causation in a story (what prize-winner George Saunders says is often missing in his students’ literary works), well this novel is packed with consequences, most of them awful.

Stories in the Shadows

Two excellent crime stories, separated by a continent, couldn’t be more different, despite their similar titles. We have the East Coast version, The Psychologist’s Shadow, in which a psychologist (whose office is a mile from where I live IRL) is being stalked, and the danger is rising. Far away, on the West Coast, an AWOL Afghanistan vet ends up working as security in a Southern California strip club in Shadow Dance. Trouble ensues. Both authors are poets too. That helps the quality of the writing, and the reading is top-drawer too.

The Psychologist’s Shadow by Laury A. Egan
Fittingly, most of this story unwinds inside the head of psychologist Ellen Haskell, 36. Ellen has closed her Manhattan clinical practice and opened a new office in Princton, New Jersey, the college town where I live. Naturally, the mentions of familiar restaurants, stores, and roads is fun for me, but if you can conjure up a college town with its collection of characters and pressures, you’ll recognize it too.

What’s different about this novel is how well you get to know Ellen’s patients, as you journey through her week. As each patient’s problems are unmasked, you realize that any one of them could be the stalker plaguing her. She lives in a rural area some miles from town in a modern house with much glass. At night, everything inside is easily visible if someone were spying on her. Bit by bit, Ellen becomes convinced someone is.

As so often happens, a person who can offer sound advice or insights about other people seems not to carry that skill over to her own life. Slow to recognize danger. Reluctant to act.

You can almost believe Egan is herself a psychotherapist, so much of the patients’ stories is described with clinical sensitivity. But she is not. She is the author of a dozen previous novels, and has also published short stories and poetry, which may be why her language, even when talking about such elusive matters as feelings, is so clear.

Shadow Dance by Martin Ott
Buddy Rivet has ended his several tours in Afghanistan, somewhat—no, a great deal—worse for wear. He travels cross-country toward the disillusioning promise of California where his best friend Solomon St. James is working as a DJ in a strip club called, with deliberate irony, Club Paradise.

Solomon’s employer is Big Z Pourali, head of an extended Iranian family that believes it can write its own rules. The men are bullies, violent and abusive. The scheming, manipulative women—though attractive, unfortunately, to Solomon and Buddy—have their own agendas.

Rivet’s friend Solomon is gliding down a path to almost certain destruction, dealing drugs and consorting with would-be gangsters. Drugs, guns, alcohol, and sex—what can go wrong? Pretty much everything.

While all this may sound fairly bleak (and is), there’s humor too, and the quality of Ott’s writing lifts the story above its back-alley surroundings. He makes Rivet a perceptive observer, and what he sees are people who will always be on the outside looking in.

I liked Rivet, and I came to believe Club Paradise is only a temporary waystation on his journey to full adulthood, with new adventures to relate. You just have to hope he does find himself, somewhere, soon.

Ben Franklin vs. the Counterfeiters

Wartime is always an opportunity for foes to flood rival economies with fake currency. Destabilizing a country’s finances can bring it to its knees pretty quickly—a contributor to the social disorder described in Michael C. Grumley’s new dystopian thriller set in the near future, Deep Freeze. The value of real money drops and inflation soars. The historical aspects of counterfeiting offer equal inspiration to authors.

In colonial times, when the country wasn’t even formed yet and faith in its future may have been a bit shaky, counterfeit money was a particular risk. Colonials preferred to rely on coinage—they could always give it the “bite test”—but when coins were in short supply, they would accept paper money more as an IOU, rather than final payment. Eventually, of course, paper money grew to be trusted and had intrinsic value. Demonstrating how seriously the legitimate currency producers took this issue, Franklin and other authorized producers often printed “to counterfeit is death” on the notes they produced. And, indeed, several Tories most responsible for distributing counterfeit bills were hanged.

This was before holograms, imbedded security strips, 3D security ribbons, microprinting, color-shifting inks, and before at least 18 countries adopted polymer plastic banknotes developed and printed in Australia. Nevertheless, printers such as Franklin (he was an inventor, after all) deployed a succession of new printing methods and materials to foil the criminals.

Earlier this week—on Franklin’s 318th birthday—the American Philosophical Society (founded by Franklin in Philadelphia) presented a talk by Khachatur Manukyan from the University of Notre Dame on Franklin’s innovations. He and his team in the Nuclear Science Laboratory have done detailed analyses of some 600 paper money notes, printed from 1709 to 1790 to identify Franklin’s methods. Of course, he didn’t have these scientific tools, but he certainly was aware of how to differentiate his currency from that of a common counterfeiter.

For a time, Franklin printed the skeleton of an actual leaf on the back side of his bills (sage, maple, parsley, for example). A leaf’s complex structure is hard to duplicate. He used deliberate misspellings and deployed natural graphite pigments and colored inks that differed from the darkness and composition of inks counterfeiters usually had available, and his inks may have been more stable in color over time. He developed the threads of color in the paper, watermarks, and grainy, translucent fillers, like powdered mica to establish a gloss. Some of his efforts also made the paper more durable. One of his bills just “felt” right. As his methods changed over time, counterfeiters were forced to keep innovating too.

Counterfeit “detectors” and a good eye helped colonists steer clear of bogus bills. Cashiers who run your $20 under a UV light are following a long, venerable tradition!

Skeletal leaf photo by Mark Longair and Ben Franklin photo by Ervins Strauhmanis; both with Creative Commons license 2.0 Generic licenses.

Past Lying by Val McDermid

Publication of a new police procedural featuring Val McDermid’s intrepid Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie is something to get excited about. In Past Lying, the streets of Edinburgh have never been so ominous—and empty—as when this story takes place in April 2020, at the height of the covid epidemic. Authors were of mixed minds about whether to write about covid, thinking “too much already!” but McDermid makes the lockdown an effective handicap to Pirie, whose investigation of a not-quite-stone-cold case must (at least in theory) accommodate the public health restrictions.

Pirie and Detective Sergeant Daisy Mortimer are camped out in Pirie’s boyfriend Hamish’s fancy flat while he has relocated up north to tend his sheep farm in the Highlands. He’s bought a former gin still up there and is manufacturing hand sanitizer.

As ever, Pirie has a couple of pots bubbling away. One complication in her life is a subplot involving a Syrian refugee being hunted by assassins from his home country. I’ve always admired how McDermid keeps two powerful story strands going, such that when she switches from one to the other, I’m instantly engrossed again. In this instance, the secondary plot isn’t as compelling as it might be, and the exigencies of covid mean there is less interaction with some of Pirie’s colleagues in various crime labs who serve such a satisfying role in other works.

The main plot is more squarely in the domain of Pirie’s Historic Cases Unit. In touch with her by telephone, Detective Constable Jason ‘The Mint’ Murray reports that a librarian, reviewing papers submitted by the estate of a deceased Tartan Noir crime writer, Jake Stein, has run across the opening chapters of an unpublished manuscript. They describe a murder that sounds eerily similar to an unsolved disappearance from the previous year, in which an Edinburgh University student named Lara Hardie vanished.

What Jake Stein has written compel Pirie and Mortimer to dig into his past. Stein was apparently not a very nice guy; he was in the middle of a marital calamity; and his formerly successful career was on the skids. His only remaining friend is another author who’d come and play chess with him and where Stein would talk about “the perfect murder.” The parallels between Stein’s real life and his fictional book are striking, so that the narrative takes on the characteristics of nested dolls. I found myself having to stop and think, am I reading Stein’s book? Or about him?

If you have read other McDermid books featuring Pirie (this is the seventh), you may have run across DC Jason Murray previously. You may recall he’s sometimes considered not the brightest bulb, but in this book, he finally comes into his own. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the stresses of lockdown, but I found Pirie a less sympathetic character than usual. At times, she’s almost mean. She pays lip service to the lockdown rules, but ignores them whenever she wants to. The justification that every day is important to the family of a disappeared person wore a little thin.

A crime novelist is an ideal character to obsess about the perfect crime, and Stein’s draft-cum-confession, as you read it, raises a multitude of good questions—not necessarily relevant to his plot, nor his personal life, but about Pirie’s investigation. Nesting dolls again.

While McDermid has certainly earned the sobriquet of Britain’s ‘Queen of Crime,’ I confess to a slight disappointment with this latest book. Of course, it’s still head and shoulders above many crime novels, and if you like the Pirie character, you won’t want to miss it.