The highest praise I can give any book is that it puts your life on hold for however long it takes you to read it: you will hold your pee until you finish the chapter; just fifty pages more and then you’re really going to do the washing-up. Val McDermid writes such books. From the consistently gripping opening sentences onward, you are at her mercy.
McDermid’s most famous creation is Dr Tony Hill, a clinical psychologist affiliated with the fictional University of Bradfield. He collaborates with DI Carol Jordan of Bradfield CID on the sort of baffling, gruesome murders that would make Fred and Rosemary West uncomfortable. Jordan is a tough copper who swears by forensic evidence. Hill, on the other hand, “gets these feelings” about the crimes and their perpetrators. At the start of their working relationship she only tolerates Hill’s eccentric behavior because his irrational, intangible instincts and his insights into the psychopathic mind get results. As the years go by, however, they find themselves drawn to each other, dysfunctional loners that they both are.
Carol Jordan is your run-of-the-mill no-nonsense copper. You will have seen her type on everything from The Sweeney to The Bill. The only interesting thing about her is the fact that she is a woman doing what is traditionally a man’s job. (For further reference, please see Lynda la Plante. )
Tony Hill is a masterful, inspired creation. Mentally and physically abused as a child by his mother and grandmother, he knows better than anyone what neglect can do to a vulnerable child. He himself was only saved from becoming a psychopath by a dinner lady at his school who showed him kindness and who made him feel safe and loved. It is this intimate knowledge of the criminally insane mind that makes Hill such a terrific profiler. He frequently asks himself, What would I do? How would I get rid of the body of a raped teenage girl? Where would I strike next? By his own admission, Hill only “passes for human”. He is socially inept and suffers from a motor learning difficulty. He relaxes by playing the Tomb Raider videogame. Some people who meet him assume he is autistic and thus underestimate his abilities. One such person is Jacko Vance.
Vance was once half of a successful television presenting team with his wife, Micky. Fourteen years ago he was arrested for murdering half a dozen teenage girls. (I would be interested to find out what Richard Madeley has to say about the character.) He has spent all this time in prison. But now he has escaped and he is losing no time in going after the people who took away his freedom in the first place. In the meantime another murderer is on the loose, targeting prostitutes who work the streets of Bradfield.
Few things make me happier than a new Tony Hill novel, with the possible exception of a new limited-edition flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. These books are not your typical whodunit or even whydunit; Tony Hill is not your typical shrink. The tightness of the plots is remarkable. Even in this book, where two separate plot strands run together, the reader is never confused as to what is going on and who the many police officers working the cases are. McDermid knows her way around forensics and police procedure, but she never drowns her reader in a mire of unintelligible and boring jargon. The Tony Hill series are miles ahead of any other crime thrillers and Val McDermid leaves all pretenders to her throne far behind.
My advice to you reading this review would be: Do not read this book! Start from the begining with The Mermaids Singing instead and work your chronological way towards The Retribution. That way, you will slowly get acquainted with Dr Hill and learn to admire and love him. If that is still not enough for you, get your hands on the – now sadly cancelled – ITV series Wire in the Blood with Robson Green as Dr Tony Hill. I guarantee it will be a love affair for life. You’re welcome.
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