When teenager Jennifer Maidment's murdered and mutilated body is discovered, it's clear that there is a dangerous psychopath on the loose. But it's not long before Tony and DCI Carol Jordan realise it's the start of a brutal campaign targeting an apparently unconnected group of young people. Their chameleon-like killer is chatting with them online, pretending to share their interests and beliefs - and then luring them to their deaths.
Relationships (personal, business, familial, friendship) are complicated things, as the 6th Tony Hill and Carol Jordan book FEVER IN THE BONE explores.
The central investigation centres around the brutal deaths of a number of apparently unconnected teenage victims. Starting out with a look at the victims themselves, and therefore into their family relationships, McDermid simultaneously weaves in a closer look at the families of her main characters. Tony's hitherto unknown father, and his non-relationship with his mother; the strange little "family" that is Hill and Carol Jordan's friendship; even the family that is the Carol's specialist investigation squad. Tellingly, McDermid also explores the relationships that people form in the world of social networking (going so far, it seems, as to create the social networking environment referred to in the book - which has now closed down I believe).
One of the most important things I noticed in reading FEVER OF THE BONE is that even though I'm all over the place with this series, there was no point when I felt I was missing out on something from an earlier book. I think a reader could jump into the series just about anywhere and find themselves engaged from the start. Sure there's some relationship development - particularly between Tony and Carol - that's going on, but it's carefully paced and it's not hard to work out what the backstory is. Mind you, it probably does help to realise that part of McDermid's great skill as a writer is evident in Tony. He's undoubtedly one of the most engaging annoying characters you're ever going to encounter in crime fiction. Possibly not surprising when you consider that his profiling style is to somehow or other think himself into the head of a killer, but it's definitely not a recipe for being an all sunshine and happy smiling times sort of a bloke.
There is some backstory to Tony, from his childhood through to the recent discovery of the identity of the father that he never knew. There are a lot of reasons for Tony to be complicated and they are explored in FEVER OF THE BONE. There are undoubtedly reasons for Carol to be complicated also. And that's another relationship that gets an airing in FEVER OF THE BONE - Carol has a new boss - James Blake. She has gone from having the support of her superiors, including their understanding that Tony's consultancy role on major investigations is a given, to a new boss who isn't supportive, is borderline dismissive and extremely suspicious of the combination of personal and professional between Tony and Carol. When he stops Carol from using Tony as a consultant to this investigation, he cuts off a lifeline that she's relied upon. Not just because of his skill as a profiler, but because Carol feels safe when Tony is around. Eventually Tony is able to hand Carol a way of ensuring his involvement, but with that comes an offer of major change in both their lives. As the investigation is resolved, the future becomes the next mystery - for them and for the reader.
With every book I read in this series, I find something new to admire. The way that McDermid works with her characters, exposing flaws, highlighting strengths, making them human whilst not overtly looking for sympathy. Obviously this is strongest in the main characters, but there is also evolution in the supporting character set. The way she humanises the victims - again flaws, strengths and all. There's good, solid, old-fashioned police investigating going on, supported admirably by clever technology, but the emphasis is the right way around - the hi-tech supports the slog, enhances the hunches, and tightens up the timeframes within the investigation. And finally, there's a clever, tight and quite chilling plot, with some unexpected but perfectly believable twists and turns that lead to a final resolution that will make the reader think long and hard about assumptions and prejudices.
BENEATH THE BLEEDING - Val McDermid
When Robbie Bishop, star midfielder for the Bradfield Vics, is poisoned by a rare and deadly toxin, profiler Dr Tony Hill and trusted colleague DCI Carol Jordan have their work cut out for them. Robbie was adored, so the public wants answers - but the answers aren't coming, and trails are running cold.
Then a bomb explodes in the football stadium, causing massive casualties - and another man dies from poisoning. Is there a link between the cases? And what are the motives for these crimes?
BENEATH THE BLEEDING is the fifth book in the Tony Hill / Carol Jordan series from Scottish writer Val McDermid. Which fans of this writer will already know. Fans will also know that anybody as daft as me, who would leave this book on the review pile for as long as I have, is really missing out on a very good thing.
Now there are plenty of serial or multiple killer books floating around out there, and many readers are well over the whole idea, but you do have to give a moment's thought to revising that attitude when the writer is as talented and assured as McDermid. BENEATH THE BLEEDING grabs the reader from the opening scenes - when a star footballer is admitted to hospital, dying slowly with nobody able to identify the cause. And therein lies the whole pattern of this book - nothing is obvious, nothing is initially as it seems, nobody is quite what they are stacked up to be. Nothing makes sense. Not the series of poisonings, using very obscure toxins. Not the bomb exploding in a football stadium being obviously a terrorist attack. Not the friendship / ongoing dance between Tony and Carol. Not the relationship between Tony and his mother.
There are some serious complications in Carol's investigation of these poisonings. Firstly Tony's laid up in hospital - his leg badly broken by a psychiatric patient off his medication and out of control. Tony's insight in investigations has progressed to the point where you might call it "profiling" but it's much more than that. It's all about thinking his way into the killer's head - giving Carol and her team insights into why / how or what the killer might be doing / feeling / seeing / trying to achieve. It's harder to do that when you're laid up in a leg brace in a hospital bed, and you cannot see the reactions of people, can't direct the questioning. Add to that Tony's frustrated by his infirmity and confused by his mother's presence at his bedside. The terrorist bombing adds its own complications bringing the specialist squad to town - not only do they take over the bombing investigation, they do their darned best to bully boy, huff, puff and generally stuff it up into the bargain. And they don't accept input from Carol's team - who are a crack squad in their own right, and they know their own patch very very well.
I hadn't read a Tony Hill / Carol Jordan book for a while - I think what little of the TV series I watched put me off a little. The Tony Hill of the books is a complicated, tricky individual - very much a "physician heal thyself" sort of a character. Jordan's equally complicated, prickly, determined. It's very easy to see how a friendship has developed between these two characters, and how the ever-present potential romance is almost threatening - rather than something comforting that they should be working towards. Ultimately, what comes out of BENEATH THE BLEEDING is a good, nicely twisty plot, a lot of tension and some seriously paced action. There's a good ensemble cast, although the concentration on the two main characters does mean that they disappear a little into the background. There's a good balancing of the personal and the professional, as well as the frustration and elation of difficult investigations and the pressures that Tony and Carol both feel - from others and from themselves.
FEVER OF THE BONE - Val McDermid
There are reasons why Val McDermid is one of the best in the business when it comes to writing crime fiction and they are all contained in FEVER OF THE BONE.
Tony, Carol and her team are all familiar but evolving characters. Characters you care about. Several different threads of the plot weave in and out of each other, changing emphasis at just the right time for maximum suspense.
FEVER OF THE BONE differs from many books featuring serial killers in that McDermid doesn't take you inside the killer's head and doesn't describe graphic violence.
It is a police procedural and one of the best I've read in a long time.
FEVER OF THE BONE is one of my top books of 2009 to date. It would take something very, very special to knock it off that list. I can't recommend it highly enough.