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by Val McDermid
St MartinŐs Minotaur, October 2003
384 pages
ISBN: 0312301995

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It was 1978, a snowy evening in St. Andrews shortly before Christmas break for the university. Four students, best friends since high school, were blundering their way home from a late night party, drunk and disorderly. As young men will do, one shoved another and one of the men, Alex Gilbey, plunged over a hill and landed on the body of a young woman, Rosie Duff. Sigmund Malkiewicz, a medical student, did what he could, but she died of massive loss of blood. Alex, meanwhile, hurried to find a policeman and get an ambulance.

From that moment on these men's lives were altered and their friendship wrenched asunder. The police viewed them as the primary suspects and, indeed, there was no one else around. The investigation was businesslike and detailed although the police never found the proof they needed to arrest any one of them. Rosies two brothers, however, had no such compunctions and they terrorized the four until the police forced them to stop.

Twenty five years later police headquarters directs all divisions to examine their cold cases in light of modern technology (especially DNA). One of the cases is of course that of Rosie Duff. Strange and frightening things begin to happen to the four men who were the original suspects in the murder and one, Alex Gilbey, believes he has to uncover the murderer before he himself is killed.

The characters in this book are so well-drawn, so authentic, that the reader feels she knows and understands each one. The four young students and the men they grow into are in many ways outsiders. They always found support among themselves and even after 25 years and doubt and suspicion there is a strong tie. The police, both from 1978 and the present, are believable, portrayed with a few strokes, some key details, and splendid insight into their characters. And while we never met Rosie Duff, we get to know her very well through the investigation and through the eyes of her two brothers, petty criminals and very violent men.

The sense of place is exceptional. We experience this small Scottish town, and the weather, snowy, rainy, often gloomy helps to produce the appropriate atmosphere. This is a town rarely facing scandal and murder, a place of innocence 25 years ago, and these four students are seen as evil malefactors who destroyed this innocence. Even when they all move away, the center of the story is Alex Gilbey who stays in Scotland which remains the backdrop for the action.

The story line is powerful. This is a study of the effects of a murder on a number of people connected in some way with that murder. We follow these lives while inexorably the plot moves toward a solution to the murder. We doubt each of the four. We wonder about outsiders. But I, for one, was completely astonished as I began to realize the identity of the actual murderer. Some may see it coming sooner, but I saw it just in time.

This is a powerful book, demanding of its readers, asking questions we may not immediately want to answer, absorbing in its story, and dazzling in its resolution. It is one of the best books I have read this year.

Reviewed by Sally A. Fellows, November 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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