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Val McDermid told me to read it!
I saw Val McDermid on Celebrity Mastermind a few months back, and she was asked where she got her ideas for her books. She then recounted an anecdote about a situation that had happened to someone she knew, who had stumbled across a badly injured person on a night out, without any idea what had happened. The person in the "real life" story turned out to have recovered and so everything could be resolved and worked out, but she got to wondering what would have happened if the person had died, and the people "helping" had - literally - blood on their hands - and to all intents and purposes looked guilty. With that idea growing in her mind she had written one of her books.
I was intrigued by the ideas in that anecdote and when I picked this book up in a charity shop, read the synopsis and realised that this was "that" book, I bought it immediately. This kind of crime novel/thriller is my preferred genre, but this book in particularly had captured my imagination because of seeing McDermid talking about it.
Synopsis (no spoilers other than those on the book sleeve)
In the fictional story, the central characters (four students, best mates for years) discover a murder victim, there are no other witnesses and they are automatically assumed to be chief suspects. They are ostracised by the community and threatened and attacked by vigilantes (victim's family). No-one is charged with the murder, but the lads are left with the horrors of that night, and the suspicion (and presumed guilt) hanging over them for their lives ahead.
The book then moves on 25 years, and we are reacquainted with the main characters in their early 40's, all still plagued by the events of that night, although all having moved on to varying degrees. The police have opened a cold-case review into the murder, which obviously stirs everything up. Then on the 25th anniversary of the murder, one of them is killed in a fire, and very soon after, another of the four is murdered in his own home. At this point, the remaining two of the four realise that it is going to be down to them to fight to establish if and why they are in danger themselves, and the only way to do that is to find out and expose what really happened that night, and bring the guilty party or parties to justice.
The four main characters in the book are all interesting in different ways, and I found myself really engaging with the two remaining characters in the latter stages of the book. I really bought into the power of their early friendship, which was brilliantly portrayed. Early on I did have a lot of checking back in the book to keep reminding myself who was who, but that's probably more down to my stop-start struggle to get into the book than anything else. Overall, McDermid portrayed all the main characters well, I really cared about them by the end, and also introduced "lesser" characters, some of whom only played minor parts but who were equally well developed.
The book is set in St. Andrews, Fife. There is some Scottish dialect in the dialogue which I liked, and the areas, locations, lifestyles and the two different eras in the book were easy to envisage and well described.
For me, Val McDermid writes in a way that's really accessible - no jargon, no fussy language, good dialogue passages, and certainly towards the end she kept me turning the pages, and "just one more chapter" until obviously I was too near the end to give up. The last few chapters I was really on the edge of my seat.
A gripping read?
I had four attempts to get into this book ... not a great endorsement you may think, but on the other hand I was up until after midnight last night to read the last 200+ pages in one two-hour sitting ...so obviously it was worth persevering with!
I'm so glad I stuck with this book, it turned into a fantastic nail-biter and page turner. This was the first Val McDermid novel I'd read and it certainly won't be my last. Much as I love a good crime book, I don't like them to be unnecessarily gory, and although there were some unpleasant details in here, it wasn't gratuitous and was in keeping with the story. Was the book a poor or slow starter, or was that down to me? I tend to think it was partly both - I wasn't able to have any really long reading sessions, and also much of the early part of the book is taken up with the procedural stuff surrounding the events of that night - all essential to the story but sometimes heavy going and maybe a bit repetitive.
McDermid is a Scottish author who has a prolific catalogue of books, including "Wire in the Blood". I love this quote on the front of this book about her: "McDermid's capacity to enter the warped mind of a deviant criminal is shiveringly convincing" (The Times). Had I not been on the lookout for this book anyway, this endorsement really captures my interest in her writing. Having read this book, I definitely agree!
I'm looking out for my next Val McDermid thriller! £1.99 extremely well spent!
One more thing
Just to tie things up, Val did win Mastermind that night, so a memorable evening all round!
After having a rather "heavy" night, Alex Gilby and his three best friends stumble home in the early hours of the morning.
After a heavy dumping of snow, they decide that they will cut through the local cemetery to get back to their halls quicker.
After a little horsing around from the group they stumble (literally!) onto the local barmaid Rosie Duff, who has been beaten, raped and stabbed, with the four boys being the only suspects.
Twenty five years later the cold case team are reviewing all unsolved cases in the local area, with the murder of Rosie Duff being top of the list, though after the seemingly accidental death of one of the four original suspects, then the obviously deliberate murder of another, it seems someone may still be harbouring a grudge against the original witness's.
This is not my normal choice for reading, but after reading a few Martina Cole books, I felt that a bit of suspense would be in order, though did feel that this may well be a good idea in theory, but the actuality of this book seemed to be a bit less exciting and much more tedious.
The first section of the book was really enjoyable, with the crime taking place very early on in the book, and the mounting evidence against the lads, this made the case an almost open and shut case, it was fast paced, and full of emotion, I really felt the fear and disbelief of the group of what I would deem as little more than children, at being the first on the scene, trying to save the girls life, then being accused of her murder.
At no point did I suspect anyone else, even though you are led to believe that the boys are innocent they even start to accuse each other at times, so you are never entirely sure of their innocence, but at the same time don't believe it could be anyone else.
The story starts to take a rather undramatic turn when the case is re-opened, with the police officer in charge being the constable first on the scene originally, and you get the impression that he is determined to solve the crime, though it seems that luck is not on his side when a series of events finds him without any original evidence.
This makes the story seem quite long winded and drawn out, with the original investigation (which you have already read about and gone through in the first section) being the bases of the new investigation, and seemingly covering old ground.
When the story finally gets going (a few pages from the end), I had already worked out what was going on, and I was waiting for the end (though there is a rather dramatic scene prior to this, which does go in some way to redeeming the endless pages of bumf I endured before!), though I did enjoy the conclusion, I was grateful when the book was finished!
There is surprisingly very little sex or violence within the book, with the author concentrating more on the relationships between these four boys/men, and how their lives will pan out as the four men who were accused but got away with murder, which was very well written, and with them acting exactly as I would expect someone to behave in that situation.
The rest of the book (though readable enough) could have done with some serious pruning content wise, this I feel would have made the book flow much better, detracting nothing from the original concept.
Price wise this has a RRP of £10.99, but is available for much less via www.amazon.co.uk
Thanks for reading x
Following the publication of the tremendous The Mermaids Singing I devoured with relish everything that Val McDermid wrote and it was having enjoyed her books that I became an avid fan of crime fiction so much so that I had found other authors I liked much better by the time The Distant Echo was published. Over Christmas, though, I found a copy belonging to my mother and set off to find out what Id been missing.
The Distant Echo starts like all good thrillers with the discovery of a body. In this case its the late 1970s and its the body of a young barmaid that has been found by four students coming home drunk from a party. In the absence of any strong leads or motive for the murder, the finger of blame is soon directed at the unfortunate students much of it instigated by the Senior policeman in charge of the investigation, despite the attempts of the PC Lawson, the first officer on the scene, to persuade him otherwise.
We then join the story twenty-five years later as the development of scientific techniques in crime deduction sees the murder being included in a list of cold cases to be re-examined. Lawson is now the Assistant Chief Constable but he still takes an interest in how the re-opened investigation is progressing. The young officer leading the cold case enquiry intends to interview the men who found the body to see if she can learn anything new but when one of them is murdered it becomes apparent that not everyone wants the case re-opened
The Distant Echo bounds along at quite a pace and kept me interested all the way. While the characterization itself is nothing special I felt that using four young men to find the body rather than just two gave something extra to the story as the reader learns what has happened to each one in the intervening years and what effect their gruesome find has had individually as well as to the dynamics of their group. I found the other characters rather stereotypical the victims volatile older brothers, the secretive and aloof French wife of one of the students and most of all the lesbian journalist enlisted to get insider information (perhaps more than a bit of McDermid herself in this character..).
A drawback of the use of four central characters, though, was that it extended the book to close to a whopping 600 pages which is fairly long for the genre. I'm sure it would have been possible to have told the story in fewer words without losing any impact.
I felt that one effect of the poor characterization was that I sometimes had to flick back a page or two to remind myself who a particular character was this is especially true of the four students who refer to each other by their childhood nicknames but who are referred to by their proper names by family members or the police. Had their characters been more memorable I do not think I would have had this problem.
I liked the idea of the story centering around a re-opened cold case but I would have preferred more emphasis on the new techniques available to detectives in the field of forensics however, this is just personal preference Patricia Cornwell this is not so maybe I should not be so demanding!
For me, Val McDermid works a little too hard reminding us that the original crime took place in the 1970s with references to news events, music and fashions of the day; all of the allusions were just a bit stilted and gratuitous and added no particular value. More important, in my opinion, were the characters of the two policemen MacLennan and Lawson who really came across as Scotsmen of their time. Perhaps, also, the attitudes of not only the police but also the books other characters towards the students is something which gives an authentic nineteen seventies feel to the book.
Unlike her early novels, The Distant Echo is lean on bloody scenes of torture and violence and will may either increase or decrease the books appeal depending on your preference. Personally, I felt that a higher body count or more pain might have lifted the story a little for me! Its something McDermid has done well in the past, I missed that skill here.
One of the tests of a good thriller is whether it keeps the reader guessing; it need not be a who-dunnit, a how - or why or when can also fit the bill. In this case I have to say that my suspicions were confirmed but that didn't mean that there weren't some other surprises in store.
The Distant Echo lacks the punch of McDermids earlier novels such as The Mermaids Singing or The Wire in the Blood. It is a competent and well-structured thriller but fails to have any feature that sets it apart from what is a crowded literary marketplace. I recommend it with reservation if you have read her earlier works do not rush out to the bookstores, if you have never read Val McDermid before or prefer your thrillers to be heavier on the psychology and lighter on the blood and gore this may be a good place to start.
Available from amazon from £5.59 new and just a penny for a used copy!
ISBN - 0007142846, 576 pages
A cold case investigation into the murder of a young woman reopens after 25 years
In St Andrews in December 1978, four friends going home from a Christmas party find a young woman dying and go for help but too late. Then the police's interest in them seems to be only as suspects. Nothing is proved (or disproved).
In 2003 it seems like all four of the self-styled 'Laddies fi' Kirkcaldy' have made a success of their lives in their various chosen careers, two in the US, two still in Scotland. Then the investigation is reopened and soon after two of the men are murdered. Is this the distant echo of the past? Alex Gilby isn't sure who killed Rosie Duff back in St Andrews or his friends Ziggy and Mondo, but knows that until he, or the police, find out what happened, he won?t be safe, and nor will his family.
I looked forward to this book with its title taken from a song lyric by 70s UK band the Jam, the combination of past and present etc. I was a little disappointed though - I did not find it to be one of Val McDermid?s best novels. There were a lot of characters to keep straight, and few were fully enough drawn to remember who they were without looking them up constantly. Even the most central characters felt a little shadowy to me.
Another thing that pulled me out of the story several times was the use of detail. McDermid would have been a journalist in 1978, and she puts comments about news stories from the 1970s in her characters' mouths. The problem is, they don't quite ring true tossed into the conversation, and I think they would have been better omitted (they subtract rather than add to the story or the scene setting).
Perhaps I would have been more impressed if this had been my introduction to McDermid's work. As it was, I found it an interesting read but I miss the focus, craft, characterisation and humour of this author's best novels.
A few basic details
The Distant Echo, Val McDermid
Harper Collins 2003, paperback 2004
hardback 482 pages £17.99, sold by Amazon at £12.59
paperback 576 pages £6.99, Amazon price £3.99
About the author
Val McDermid was born and brought up in Scotland, went to St Hilda?s College in Oxford at the young age of 16, and then had a successful career in journalism, before turning to crime (fiction) in her early 30s.
Her work includes 6 Lindsay Gordon novels about a Scottish investigative journalist, 6 Kate Brannigan books about a PI in south Manchester, 4 books about police detective Carol Jordan and criminal profiler Tony Hill (now televised under the title The Wire in the Blood, several standalones and a non-fiction book comparing women PIs in the UK and US.
She has organised two very successful and enjoyable Harrogate Crime Festivals in July 2003 and 2004 - look out for programme details for the third one in 2005.
Capital letters courtesy of: http://www.chuckleweb.co.uk/fixit.php