DCI Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit (HCU) believes solving cold cases is just as important as solving new ones, to give bereaved people answers. In 2020, however, investigating any case is constrained by the Covid pandemic lockdown. Covid regulations in Scotland mandate that people remain inside except for one hour per day, when they’re permitted to go out to take a walk, purchase necessities, and perform other errands.
Karen and her HCU team member, Detective Sergeant Daisy Mortimer, are in lockdown together, staying in the luxurious apartment of Karen’s boyfriend, Hamish Mackenzie, who’s overseeing his working croft in the Highlands. Karen’s other assistant, Detective Constable Jason Murray, is residing with his fiancée, passing the time playing video games.
The HCU is called into action when DC Jason Murray gets a call from an acquaintance named Meera Reddy, who’s an archivist at the National Library. Meera has been cataloguing papers from the estate of deceased crime novelist Jake Stein, and Stein’s unpublished manuscript, titled ‘The Vanishing of Laurel Oliver,’ has made Meera uneasy. It seems the victim in the Laurel Oliver story has the same rare seizure malady as a young woman called Lara Hardie, who REALLY disappeared a year ago.
Karen and Daisy get a copy of ‘The Vanishing of Laurel Oliver,’ which – in a nutshell – has the following plot: A crime writer named Jamie Cobain, whose career is on the skids, is resentful of his fellow scribe Rob Thomas, whose career is on the ascent. Moreover, Jamie’s wife is having an affair with Rob. So Jamie decides to murder someone and frame Rob for the crime. Laurel Oliver, a reserved, aspiring writer who goes to Jamie’s book-signing, is a convenient victim, and Jamie carries out his plan.
Karen and Daisy suspect that fictional murderer Jamie Cobain is really author Jake Stein; fictional rival Rob Thomas is a real-life novelist called Ross McEwen; and Laurel Oliver is really Lara Hardie. The police have some leeway regarding the Covid restrictions, and the HCU gets on the job, using clues in Stein’s manuscript to search for Lara Hardie’s body. The investigation takes some unexpected turns, and the detectives need all their skills to find the truth.
Karen has to navigate around her difficult boss, Assistant Chief Constable Ann Markie (aka The Dog Biscuit), to pursue the Lara Hardie case, but Karen is determined to bring closure to Lara’s heartsick family. The Dog Biscuit has always been a thorn in Karen’s side, and Karen fervently hopes Markie gets a Chief Constable job in England.
Meanwhile, the HCU detectives are dealing with issues in their own lives. Karen is helping a Syrian refugee who’s the target of assassins for exposing abuse in a Syrian prison. Daisy is trying to sustain an online romance. And Jason’s mother is ill with Covid and his petty criminal brother is causing trouble.
In addition to having a clever premise, the novel provides a realistic portrait of the paranoid atmosphere engendered by the Covid pandemic. People are deathly afraid of getting sick, and the HCU detectives must maneuver around lockdown rules to search for clues, interview witnesses, and try to find out what really happened.
Val McDermid is an excellent mystery writer, and this novel is a fine addition to her oeuvre.
Thanks to Netgalley, Val McDermid, and Grove Atlantic for a copy of the book.
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