Tony Hill and Carol Jordan are back, on the hunt for the ‘Wedding Killer’
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.
Both 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.
In the 30 years since her first novel was published, Val McDermid has written 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction. She shows no sign of slowing down, with her 10th novel featuring Dr Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan hitting the shelves this week with their most bewildering case yet.
A car is on fire on a remote road. Inside is the body of a woman. The Regional Murder Investigation Team, a newly created unit headed by Jordan, is called in to solve the mystery. Unfortunately, the fire brigade reached the car first and washed away potential evidence while putting the blaze out.
Then another woman is found in similar circumstances. Forensically aware, the killer leaves no clues to his identity or his reasons for killing two very different women. With the press on their heels, and a disgruntled senior police officer willing her to fail, Jordan and her team are under pressure to solve the case.
The queen of crime on the new generation of writers, how the genre has changed in 30 years – and how she’s promised not to kill off Tony Hill and Carol Jordan.
My readers are probably going to kill me,” Val McDermid announces cheerfully when we discuss the ending of her latest novel. Her new Tony Hill and Carol Jordan book, Insidious Intent, is published on Thursday, and the reaction of fans to how she has chosen to end it will be interesting. “There’s a certain fear of being stoned in the street,” she chuckles.
We meet at the Theakston Old Peculier crime writing festival in Harrogate, where McDermid is practically royalty, and she has murder on her mind. This is not unusual, she says; quite frequently a pleasant weekend away will turn her thoughts to homicide. There was the time when she spotted a wedding party during a crime and mystery conference at her old college, St Hilda’s, Oxford, “and by the end of the afternoon it seemed to me that the logical thing that was going to have to happen was that the bridegroom would be dead by bedtime. And by the end of the weekend I had the basic shape of the story in my head.” That flight of fancy turned into the 2010 novel, Trick of the Dark. And then, more recently, she and her partner went on a boating holiday. “In France you can moor up anywhere, and in order to facilitate this they give you five sharpened steel stakes, about two foot long, and a big hammer. And I’m looking at this and thinking, isn’t that a great murder weapon? And we’re cruising through wooded banks with no access from the road. And I’m saying to my partner, ‘This is a perfect murder here …’ By this time my partner is inching away from me. So, we were on this lovely romantic holiday, and my thoughts turned to murrrder.” She pronounces the word with obvious relish.