Book Review: Broken Ground by Val McDermid

If you are looking for a proper UK police procedural to tuck in to this festive season - or anytime - look no further than Broken Ground, fifth in the Inspector Karen Pirie series, and written by prolific, internationally best-selling author, Val McDermid. Ms. McDermid has been called by many “the Queen of Scottish crime”, as well as “one of the best crime writers of her generation”. Her latest entry is, as they say in the UK, a corker!

Broken Ground features Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie, who is in charge of the Historic Cases Unit (read: cold cases) at Police Scotland in Edinburgh. DCI Pirie has a new immediate supervisor, Assistant Chief Constable, Ann Markie, and, as Karen Pirie discovers at the beginning of the novel, a new team member in Detective Sergeant, Gerry McCartney, originally from Glasgow, and reassigned from MIT to her unit by none other than Karen’s new boss. All of the novel’s characters are wonderful, and the dialogue throughout is strong, but the interpersonal dynamics between Karen and Gerry McCartney, between Ann Markie and Gerry, and, most especially, between Karen and Ann are absolutely delectable, as Ann Markie turns out to be the kind of cunning schemer that we readers “love to hate”! Fortunately, Karen has her best, female friend, forensic anthropologist, River Wilde, as well as Australian, female colleague, Tamsin Martineau, a lab technician at the Scottish Crime Campus in Gartcosh, to bounce ideas off of, and to banter with.

There are at least three different cases that DCI Pirie pursues in the novel, and the various plot threads are woven together masterfully, with the two main timelines, and any relative locations, helpfully identified as chapter headings. While never overwhelming, there is plenty in Broken Ground to keep the little grey cells of armchair detectives active and engaged!

As much as I still would love to travel to Scotland, after reading Broken Ground, you are unlikely to ever find me roaming the moors at night, alone, with nary a soul to hear my cries for help if ever I found myself sinking into the muddy depths of one of Scotland’s infamous peat bogs! Ms. McDermid gives DCI Pirie a case that takes full advantage of the “soft, damp, treacherous patches that (can be anywhere, and can) swallow (a person down) to the ankle and beyond”. The peat bogs of the Scottish Highlands naturally lend themselves to the suspenseful, “dark and stormy night” atmosphere that so many mystery and crime fiction fans adore!

If winter holiday preparations, or simply a busy lifestyle, makes sitting down with a book challenging, I highly recommend the audio book format of Broken Ground, narrated by Cathleen McCarron, who employs multiple accents in the telling of the tale, and gives an award-worthy performance! Listening to DCI Pirie’s accent, as imagined by Ms. McCarron, provided this American with an additional level of enjoyment. Broken Ground, by Val McDermid, is thoroughly satisfying, crime fiction storytelling that will keep listeners riveted, and readers glued to the pages!


Best for Crime Fiction Readers:

  • Who are fans of complex, meaty, yet very accessible, UK police procedurals.

  • Who are interested in forensic anthropology, as well as other forensic techniques.

  • Who appreciate reading about strong, independent, female characters - some very likeable and admirable, and one or more others, in a way that makes for very entertaining crime fiction, not so much.

  • Who are interested in learning about Scottish culture.

  • Who enjoy historical mysteries and crime fiction. While Broken Ground is not predominantly a historical crime novel, the book incorporates numerous, historical actions and events that are critical to the 2018 portion of the plot.

    Pages: 432 (Hardcover)

    Length: 12 hrs. 59 mins.


“In Broken Ground, cold-case Detective Karen Pirie faces her hardest challenge yet. Six feet under in a Highland peat bog lies Alice Somerville’s inheritance, buried by her grandfather at the end of World War II. But when Alice finally uncovers it, she finds an unwanted surprise - a body with a bullet hole between the eyes. 

Meanwhile, DCI Pirie is called in to unravel a case where nothing is quite as it seems. And as she gets closer to the truth, it becomes clear that not everyone shares her desire for justice. Or even the idea of what justice is.” 

MINM Overall Rating: 5/5 Stars


Val McDermid is a No. 1 bestseller whose novels have been translated into more than thirty languages, and have sold over eleven million copies. 

She has won many awards internationally, including the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year and the LA Times Book of the Year Award. She was inducted into the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame in 2009 and was the recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for 2010. In 2011 she received the Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award. 

She writes full time and divides her time between Cheshire and Edinburgh.

Please note: Broken Ground would be a great choice for the British police procedural and mystery lover on your holiday gift list - it can be read as a standalone!

Happy Holidays and Happy Reading!

Laura, Mystery in Minutes