Fever of the Bone, Val McDermid, Harper, $14.99.
There’s another writer whose career has resembled Val McDermid’s, and like McDermid, she is also British. Her name is Ruth Rendell. Rendell writes pitch perfect police procedurals, books that have developed over time from the very traditional to the more expanded, character driven novels that are more popular today. (Rendell began her writing career in 1964). She also writes, as does Val McDermid, excellent stand alone novels. The intelligence and vitality that both women bring to their work - and the sheer range of it - is unequaled. But before this becomes a complete literary love fest, let me also say that there is pretty much no one else on the planet who writes the kind of nail biting, intelligent, richly character driven serial killer books that McDermid does. This far into her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, the books have a rhythm, but it’s never an overly expected one. She always brings a surprise or two to the table.
I inhaled the first several and have read many of the stand alones that came along in between, but I’ve missed the last few Hill/Jordan entries and I’m trying to figure out why. In this one there’s a typically gory and creepy premise - someone is stalking and murdering 14 year olds. Because the murders occur in different jurisdictions, it’s quite late in the book before the police realize the connection, but McDermid has let the reader in on it from the start. In no other way are the police behind in their game, however. McDermid’s character of Carol Jordan is one of the more interesting in mystery fiction. While these are “double billed”, it’s really Jordan who is the main character, and the subtle ways McDermid sketches in workplace dynamics, some based on gender, some on rank, is very deftly and subtly done.
She’s also a whiz at depicting teenagers, in all their variety. There’s one she describes (and I had this experience with a Deborah Crombie novel recently) where I really enjoyed “meeting” the character - he was a nice person. Then I realized, uh-oh, she didn’t introduce him for the fun of it. She breaks your heart and scares you at the same time. There’s no reading a McDermid novel and feeling wishy-washy about it, let’s put it that way.
She’s also what I would call a “technical” genius - her stories fit together like a well assembled piece of machinery, each piece interlocking with the next. You may not always be sure what she’s fitting together, but you always know the pieces do fit. In this one as Tony Hill is frustrated by budget issues - Carol’s new boss thinks he’s too expensive - as well as personal ones, Carol is strung between a rock and a hard place as well, as her new boss wants results, fast and on the cheap. One way or another both parties get what they want but it’s an uneasy alliance.
That’s a lot to fit into what is really a smoothly written, page turning serial killer novel, but it’s all there. And the end result is the end result of all good books: you can’t wait for the next one. Here’s hoping that like Rendell, McDermid is still writing wonderful novels well into her 80's.
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