I realise this isn’t the most pertinent thing I can tell you about OUT OF BOUNDS but as it occupied a lot of my thinking time with respect to the book I do have to report that if you think you’d like to read this book based on its cover then you’ll likely be disappointed. There isn’t a gate or fence or country estate or anything even vaguely resembling the scene pictured on any of the 421 pages I read. So bizarre did I find this cover with respect to its relationship to the story’s content that I fell down an internet rabbit hole while looking for reason and only discovered that perhaps McDermid has a thing for gates as two of her earlier novels appear on this list of 92 books with gates/fences on the cover. In the end I am reminded that book covers these days are, like their blurbs, utterly and totally meaningless. #BringBackPlainCovers
Distractingly pointless cover aside, OUT OF BOUNDS is the kind of entertaining read I’ve come to expect from Val McDermid. It is the fourth of her novels to feature DCI Karen Pirie who heads up a Historic Crimes Unit in Scotland. I’ve only read the first of these books prior to this installment but didn’t feel at any disadvantage for that as McDermid is adept at revealing just enough to make all readers – whether they’ve read earlier novels or not – comfortable. However, of necessity this book and my discussion of it does reveal a huge spoiler for the novel which immediately precedes it (THE SKELETON ROAD) so if you think you are likely to read that book any time soon stop reading this review. Now.
For the thing driving Pirie in this novel is grief over the death some months earlier of her boyfriend and fellow officer Phil Parhatka. Beset by insomnia and a reluctance to discuss her feelings about her loss, Pirie, never a slouch, throws herself into her work and in her free time walks the city’s streets late at night. As the book progresses she does open up a little, to her dim but good-hearted sidekick and a couple of friends, but retains the core of privacy that seems important to her mental health. It is a thoughtful character study of someone dealing with loss without the near ubiquitous modern solution of catharsis-through-Facebook. Though perhaps I am unduly biased as a fellow under-sharer.
The case she is meant to be working on is the two decades-old murder of a young hairdresser, killed on a Saturday night out with her friends. New evidence arrives in the form of a familial DNA match to a young boy who is lying in a coma. Of course things are not as easy as finding the boy’s male relatives and locking one of them up and several interesting legal and moral quandaries ensue. But Karen also becomes interested in the 1994 death of four people in a light plane explosion when the son of one of those people is murdered in the present day. Her reasoning – that unexplained deaths don’t run in families – seems pretty thin even to this reader who feels kindly disposed towards her, and it’s non existent to her superiors but she perseveres despite them. And it is a ripper of a storyline, producing the kind of drama and suspense regular McDermid readers would expect.
Another aspect of the book to really enjoy is the writing with which McDermid manages to convey so much about the people and places of her fictional world, as in this snippet which describes the version of the city that Pirie inhabits on her nocturnal wanderings
…Karen moved more quickly than usual through the side streets of Leith. It wasn’t the Wild West town of Trainspotting these days: too many people had splashed their cash on flash modern apartments like hers, too many upwardly mobile young professionals had colonised tenement closes. But after midnight, the few people she saw on the street seemed to come from the older Leith of chancers and drinkers, hookers and druggies, and the poor-but-respectable who’d failed to reach escape velocity.
I love McDermid’s way with words and her dialogue which always sounds as if it’s directly out of the mouths of real people.
My only gripe with the book is that everything is a little bit too…neat. Karen’s boss is – of course – an idiot but even when he has perfectly valid reasons for reprimanding her Karen gets around him a lot more easily than real people in similar circumstances would do. And she has just the right friend or acquaintance – all of whom are willing to bend rules and work stupid hours – to resolve all the thorny issues her two cases throw up. And when the book tackles topical issues, such as the treatment of refugees, the solutions offered are unencumbered by the complexities of real life. Given there is so much else to like about the book this neatness didn’t put me off to any great extent – heaven knows we all need a fantasy world in which such things as a Trump Presidency are not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye – but I did find myself hankering for a loose end or some other evidence of messiness.
On balance though OUT OF BOUNDS is an above-average romp of a tale that manages to be very current at the same time as offering authentic details of the recent history during which the two cold cases are set. McDermid’s fans need no incentive to dive right in but if you are not a regular reader of her work you could do much worse than start here. You’ll get a real sense of her strengths as a writer, more than a few chuckles at Karen’s dry sense of humour and a darned good yarn.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Little, Brown 
Length 421 pages
Book Series #4 in the Karen Pirie series