Val McDermid — The Mermaids Singing

One of my (many) obsessions are detective novels. Although there’s a certain morbidity about it I also tend to enjoy books about profilers and serial killers as well (stemming from a fascination with abnormal psychology in college). I came to McDermid’s books in a roundabout way, having first seen the ITV show Wire in the Blood, unusual because generally I’ll try and read books before watching a TV show or movie. I really enjoyed the show, so I was curious to check out the book series.

The Mermaids Singing introduces Dr. Anthony Hill, a criminal psychologist and profiler who deals with Britain’s most notorious murderers, and DI Carol Jordan, a tough, whip-smart, but caring policewoman who’s had to make her way in a man’s world and has done a fantastic job of it. They are located in the distinctively northern town of Bradfield, where a serial killer (though the police are at first reluctant to term him as such) is picking off men and leaving their tortured bodies in extremely public areas. As the crimes grow more serious, Carol Jordan calls upon Tony Hill’s psychiatric expertise to try and catch the killer before he strikes again.

I kind of wish I had read the book before seeing the show, because I knew what was going to happen. The book was still good, and had a disturbing quality that the show didn’t have, delving into the killer’s mind (and Hill’s mind) in a way that the television medium didn’t allow. The tension crackles throughout, but it is really the characters that make this one shine. The conflicted, complex Tony Hill, tortured by as yet-unnamed past trauma, is a messed up, sexually conflicted doctor who should really be healing himself. As with the best profilers, the line that separates him from his subjects is a thin one. And Carol Jordan is an awesome female lead: ambitious, ruthless, and smart, but still with a deeply felt idealism, she takes Hill’s experience and runs with it, adding her own experience and intuition to the analysis, but neither one nor the other are solely responsible for collaring the killer.

My one complaint is that although it was fun reading, it was a little dated, definitely seeming like it was written in the mid 90s. It wasn’t just the tone but the references scattered throughout (for example the killer singing a Wet, Wet, Wet song and a few other things, like computer software that played a big part in the story seeming laughingly anachronistic now).

Still an enjoyable mystery that doesn’t play dumb with you. I’m looking forward to reading more about Jordan and Hill, especially since the show diverges from the novels in its fourth season, so I’m looking forward to some surprises.

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