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Psychological Mysteries

The Distant Echo, Val McDermid, St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

On the cover of this book, in tiny letters, are the words "a novel". With some books, I find this an unbearably pretentious lie - in the case of McDermid, however, it's the actual truth. The Distant Echo is an excellent novel, one that also happens to be a mystery. Using the plotting skills of the mystery writer, McDermid combines this with the characterization, sense of place, and beautiful prose style that identifies the true novelist. McDermid's work resembles that of the great Ruth Rendell, whose work also combines these same attributes. McDermid shares with Rendell a true ability to be deeply unsettling, and there are always parts of her books that stick with you long after you've closed the covers.

The Distant Echo is the story of four college friends who have known each other since high school and who, walking home through the snow, drunk, stumble over a dead girl's body. What follows is a story of what unfounded suspicion can do not only to the relationships between the boys, but to the people around them. All of the boys take it differently, and all end up in very different parts of the world, doing very different things. It's here, I think, that McDermid shows her true novelist's skill - she finely etches the characters of these boys (later men) so that all four become indelible. But did I mention that this is a mystery? There are scenes of violence interspersed throughout that are so well written and so memorable that they literally jolt you as you read them (at least they did me). And yet, this is a far less violent book than McDermid's usual fare - the violence here is spread out and seems to mean more, because in each instance, it's directed at a character we know well as readers (whether or not we like that same character is another story). The way she writes about a fatal fire about halfway through is almost twisted - it's absolutely poetic, and it's only when you get a bit farther on into the story and discover who the victim of the fire was that the violence becomes all too meaningful.

The final resolution, also in keeping with previous work, is a twist and a surprise but McDermid isn't a cheater, she's laid the spadework fairly, and on reflection, it makes sense. Combining the different facets here - excitement, character developement, a real sense of Scotland and a true portrait of friendship and what can happen to it over the years - McDermid turns in another masterwork to add to her already impressive oeuvre. This book most closely resembles her very fine A Place of Execution, and I couldn't recommend it more highly.

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