Well written, with a three-dimensional and richly detailed exposition, embedded in the historical milieu of the Serbo-Croatian war of the 1990s, concerned with issues of mass murder, ethnic cleansing, sectional hostilities, with an interesting parallel between Scotland and Serbia, by all reckoning The Skeleton Road (2014; Val McDermid) should be a successful novel. It left me cold. A few of the characters, the professor of geography and the Croatian war hero Mitja Petrovic, were larger than life. The intentionally diminished characters, especially the British detective Macanespie and primarily the Scottish detective Jane Pirie, were the most interesting. If the novel had centered on Pirie more than it did, it might have been more of a success. But it lacked something.
The first ominous sign is the fact that all the primary characters have distinctive two word names—Jane Pirie, Maggie Blake, Phil Parhatka, Tessa Minoque, etc. For whatever reason, this immediately established for me an artificial and contrived narrative. Then there are the parallel competing plots. Then there is the opening scene, in which occurs a murder the solution to which becomes the justification for practically all the characters and events in the novel. There is the character who emerges late in the story as the mole and the murderer whom everyone is tracking. There’s the final confrontation—predictable and formulaic—between the murderer and her adversary. It’s formula. Well executed, but formula.
McDermid has a knack for developing minor characters. Her most compelling characters are the ones who do not immediately fall into a glamorous mold. Jane Pirie is interesting precisely because she doesn’t immediately seem to have the physical beauty, wealth, and brilliance that such characters as Maggie Blake or Tessa possess. McDermid’s ability to develop an interesting and finally compelling character from a commonplace background is impressive. For me, one of the most impressive characters in the novel was Pirie’s sidekick, the “Mint,” whom Pirie at first loathes as dimwitted, but who gradually develops into a figure who, if not brilliant, feels deeply and shows his loyalty to Pirie in various significant if unremarkable ways. Both these characters seem real, far more so than do Maggie or Tessa or Mitja Petrovic.
As I advance in years (I suppose this could be called gaining in wisdom or deteriorating in mental capacity—the reader may choose) I have less tolerance for shallow or sloppy or half-ass or self-indulgent writing. The novel Glow, mentioned in an earlier post, was not a bad book. It was well written and in some ways creative, but in the end I couldn’t see the point. It was just an exercise in good writing and technique, not literature. I thought Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch was, at times, entertaining, and at other times impressive, but in the end it left me empty—it substituted the pyrotechnics of Tartt’s undeniably interesting and wide-ranging mind and her ability to write endless pages of narrative for art. I’m sure she thought her book was art. I certainly couldn’t have written it. I couldn’t have written The Skeleton Road. I appreciate what both Tartt and McDermid accomplish in their novels. But they seem more an ordeal than a literary experience.
One major subplot is dropped, unresolved at the end of the novel.