"He always liked the cemetery at dawn. Not because daybreak offered any promise of a fresh beginning, but because it was too early for there to be anyone else around. Even in the dead of winter, when the pale light was so late in coming, he could guarantee solitude. No prying eyes to wonder who he was and why he was there, head bowed before that one particular grave. No nosy parkers to question his right to be there."
The Distant Echo is the first in the Karen Pirie series. The later books in this series make reference to the first book and give away a major spoiler, so if you're looking to try the Pirie series, start with this one (even though the other ones can easily be read as standalones apart from Out of Bounds). However, I'm not sure it is justified to label The Distant Echo as a Karen Pirie book, because she doesn't play a huge part in this story - she merely appears in it.
I will not go into the details of the plot other than to say that this is a story of a murder investigation that takes place in St. Andrews/Fife (East of Scotland) and continues to haunt the people involved for more than 20 years.
It's always a sign of a good book to me when a book manages to draw you in and makes you feel like you are watching the story from within the story. A couple of weeks ago, I posted a question about whether a familiar setting is enough to create that bond between reader and the book that takes you into the story itself. For me it isn't enough. I also need atmosphere that is actually written, not just implied by my own knowledge of the location(s). And I need characters that come to life. That's what makes a good book for me.
Val McDermid's books tick all of these boxes for me. At least, most of the books I have read so far. What amazes me about her writing is that she manages to pitch the tone just right for her characters - all of them are individually distinct, all different, and even after 30 books, including several series, the characters seem to stay themselves and not rub off on each other. Interestingly, I cannot stand McDermid's Tony Hill series (Mermaids Singing, Wire in the Blood, etc.), but it just goes to show how diverse her repertoire of characters really is when I get to be a fan of her other books and series.
Even in this book, there were a couple of characters that I did not like at different times, but as the story progressed, the characters actually developed and changed my appreciation for them. No stylised, two dimensional characters here!
"Alex’s enthusiasm was growing thin. All that kept him going was a dogged conviction that the answer he so desperately sought was out there somewhere. It had to be. He’d covered the south side of the loch and now he was working his way round to the north shore. He’d lost count of the number of fields he’d looked into. He’d been stared at by geese, by horses, by sheep and even, once, by a llama. He vaguely remembered reading somewhere that shepherds put them in with their flocks to act as a defence against foxes, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how a big lazy lump with eyelashes a model would die for was going to deter anything as fearless as the average fox."