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Val McDermid

Haper Collins £17.99 hbk

Reviewed by Ali Karim

Just when you think Val McDermid would continue her Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series, in the wake of her international success with the third in the series 'The Last Temptation' and the TV series 'Wire in the Blood', she confounds convention by taking a risk and publishing a stand alone novel looking at friendships, family, deception and murder all woven with the mastery of a novelist at the height of her powers.
There is power and misdirection in this book. Power and misdirection that reminded me of the dizzy heights Val took us with her award-winning 'A Place of Execution'. It is written in a split time frame just as 'Execution' was, but this time we have a very dark secret indeed, and one that is as devious as it is deadly. This is a difficult book to review as its strength lies in the way it handles the array of characters, and what befalls them over the 25-year span. And what a sinister web Val McDermid has woven indeed.
The book starts in 1978, in St Andrews (Scotland), with four students leaving a party and stumbling upon the dying body of Rosie Duff, a young barmaid, in a snow-filled cemetery. She appears to have been raped and slashed deep by a knife. In the desperate struggle to save her life, the four students become stained with her blood. The stains mark them, as well as deflecting them from the trajectory that was their lives. As they summon help, she dies on that frigid morning, and the four soon become the focus of suspicion, not only by the police, but her family, as well as the shadows that haunt this book.
The first strong element of her writing is the way McDermid manages to carve distinction in the quartet, with their nicknames 'Weird', 'Ziggy', 'Mondo' and 'Gilly'. Alex Gilbey is 'Gilly' and like his colleagues finds his life changed by the events on that terrible night. The quartet had grown up together and formed a rock-band that led them to University. But when faced by the backlash from Rosie Duff's murder they soon start to unravel mentally, as external pressures start to force them apart. Soon the effect of religion, sexuality and the way that they view the world changes them forever, as does someone lurking in the shadows. There are many who could exact a heavy price for what happened to young Rosie Duff, but perhaps the shadows conceal a secret that only time will reveal.
Then 25-years later the quartet finds theirselves being picked off in thinly disguised accidents. This all coincides with the Police re-opening the 'cold-case' of Rosie Duff's rape and murder using DNA-analysis to re-examine the crime, for the crime is far more complex than we were initially led to believe. Alex Gilbey needs to find out what really happened on that night 25 years ago, but also needs to discover why Rosie Duff was murdered, and by whom, because if he doesn't - he may well end up like his friends - the victim of a mysterious killer who is seemingly exacting a heavy price for the deeds of the past. The police play a very interesting role in the twisting path of this story, with investigators Maclennan and Lawson linking the eras in which they operated, and providing the framework for the tale.
Like the characters Val fleshes out, the reality is that nothing is what it seems, and that no one is ever truly innocent when living a life. This is never more so than in The Distant Echo which poses plenty of questions about the darkness in human interactions, for which the answers many prove highly disturbing, as well as providing a moral context, and compassionate backdrop for the story.
Highly Recommended for those not scared of the cerebral and the emotions that are hidden in the dark side of the human condition, and this could well be the crime fiction novel of the year.