The past is always in the present for Edinburgh Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie, making her fifth appearance in Val McDermid’s expertly plotted “Broken Ground.” As head of the Historic Cases Unit — that would be cold cases in the United States — Karen is used to investigations that aren’t just old but also give a glimpse of life in the past.
As a result, the Karen Pirie novels turn the spotlight on bits of forgotten history. “Broken Ground” has its roots in World War II in the Scottish Highlands. In 1944, soldiers pulling out of their encampment were told to either burn or bury their equipment as it would be too costly to salvage anything. But two soldiers couldn’t bear to destroy the pair of valuable American motorcycles that had just arrived, so they buried them in protective boxes in the peat bog, planning to return one day for their treasure. They never got the chance, but now one soldier’s granddaughter, Alice Somerville, and her husband, Will, have come to claim their inheritance.
The peat bog protects anything buried in it, including the perfectly preserved body of a murdered professional athlete whose body is found along with the motorcycles. But this was a more modern crime as it is quickly determined that the man disappeared in 1995, based on his expensive limited-edition shoes.
As Karen delves into the decades-old tragedy, she also is drawn into a woman’s domestic violence situation that seems to be on the verge of escalating.
McDermid’s affinity for multilayered plots and complex characters continues to excel in “Broken Ground,” her 32nd novel. Work consumes Karen, allowing her to compartmentalize her grief over the death of the man she loved, Phil Parhatka, a fellow detective killed in the line of duty. Juggling the cases, she also deals with a new detective assigned to her tiny squad, who may be spying on her for their new boss who despises Karen.
Police politics and crime investigations soar in “Broken Ground,” but McDermid’s look at the Highlands during World War II gives a new insight into Scotland’s role during the war.
And beware of those peat bogs — you may never return.