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Val McDermid: Insidious Intent review - dark and expert crime writing | reviews, news & interviews

Val McDermid: Insidious Intent review - dark and expert crime writing

Val McDermid: Insidious Intent review - dark and expert crime writing

Tony Hill and Carol Jordan are back, on the hunt for the 'Wedding Killer'

Val McDermid: 'grittily realistic'Fraser Rice

Val McDermid has written close on 30 award-winning thrillers and suspense novels, in four series, since the late 1980s, all of them featuring a lead female protagonist. She herself worked as a journalist and a crime reporter, and the atmosphere is grittily realistic.

Insidious Intent is the tenth volume in the only McDermid series to feature a partnership – one both emotional, albeit reticent and repressed at times, and professional. Once again, as in all these novels, the title is a phrase from TS Eliot, here “The Love Song of J Albert Prufrock”:

   Streets that follow like a tedious argument
   Of insidious intent
   To lead you to an overwhelming question…
   Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
   Let us go and make our visit.

McDermid, once an English scholar, has a captivating rhythm to her writing – perhaps because of her underlying apprehension of poetry, and affinity with her chosen poet and his ability to plumb human nature. To set the scene, she quotes from De Quincey’s On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. The interplay of understanding and collaboration between the high-ranking policewoman Carol Jordan, and the clinical psychologist, a profiler of criminals, Tony Hill, is crucial.

Val McDermid: Insidious IntentBoth are middle-aged adults with complex characters and complex histories. They are people of integrity, but all too aware that things are never black and white. Both are heavily compromised by past actions, undertaken perhaps for the best of motives but marred by misjudgements, as well, of course, by the law of unintended consequences.

They are utterly human, weighed down with difficult pasts and unresolved grief and conflict. Tony is more or less living in Carol’s renovated barn, once home to her murdered brother and sister. Their relationship is platonic but stressed, as both may want more; she is also an alcoholic who has gone cold turkey and is desperate, as the story unfolds, for a drink. The reader can practically feel her physical and mental pain as she longs for her fix of choice. Carol is also being stalked by an investigative journalist who seems partly motivated by malice. Lurking behind the present sequence of events is a spectrum of past failures and successes in dealing with the most horrible violent crimes, some psychopathic in nature.

The stories of McDermid’s protagonists have been detailed in the first nine books of the series but their huge back history is skilfully alluded to in this latest iteration – so even if you are not already addicted you sort of know where you are.

Carol has resigned her senior police position but has been drawn back to head a new unit, ReMIT: the regional (six police authorities) Major Incident Team, perhaps an embryonic prototype for a British FBI. The narrative is attractively fleshed out with other collaborators and friends, including a gay couple, Paula McIntrye, a top-rate interviewer and member of the new ReMIT team, and Dr Elinor Blessing, a hard-working hospital medic. They are fostering an adolescent schoolboy, Torin, whose mother was murdered, and he too harbours painful secrets. It’s a recurrent and distracting side story, as Torin is blackmailed by a social media stalker.

What nagged at me throughout was my inability to emphathise

We encounter the murderer and discover his modus operandi in the first chapter, and he and his warped motivation are revealed a few pages on – so the whole novel is not a who done it as far as the reader is concerned. But the why has to be determined, however sick it may be, as does how he is to be found, exposed and brought to justice. His tactics are ingenious and he deploys multiple identities, as the police – through enormous amounts of drudge work as well as insight and intuition – duly discover.

He moves, under different names, between various northern towns, his victims chosen at wedding receptions that he has gate-crashed, thus gaining their trust for a short and credible courtship. Focusing on needy single women, he is in his way as clever a psychological profiler as Hill himself. He becomes known to his pursuers as the “Wedding Killer”.

The novel is beautifully crafted in short pithy chapters that shine the spotlight on the murderer, his thought processes and hyper-careful and brilliant methodologies. The characters of his respectable female victims, in their thirties and longing for a partner, make his manipulation credible. The various teams of officers and police professionals include a computer genius alongside dedicated foot soldiers increasingly desperate for a breakthrough to try to make sense of the senseless murders. The warped and evil motivation behind the murders is slowly worked out by Hill until finally a pattern is detected: a twisted pathology is at work, but even with all their investigative methods, there’s no lead that opens a solution. The budget, and the very existence of ReMIT is threatened.

Cue two totally unforeseen concluding twists in the tail, the results of which are presumably to be continued. What nagged at me throughout was my inability to emphathise – that characteristic that makes Hill such a fine psychologist – with either Carol Jordan or Dr Hill. Their angst finally irritated more than it convinced. And the motivation of the psychopath was also thin: but presumably that is a condition that hardly needs believable motivation to act out evil intentions.

The novel is beautifully crafted in short pithy chapters that shine the spotlight on the murderer


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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