Dark thriller distinguished by accurate details of 'old-fashioned coppery'


BOOK OF THE DAY: DECLAN BURKEreviews Fever of the BoneBy Val McDermid Little, Brown 432pp, £18.99

THE CHARACTERS of DCI Carol Jordan and Tony Hill will be familiar to many people who have never read a Val McDermid novel. Jordan and Hill were the double-act at the heart of the UTV series Wire in the Blood, which ran from 2002 until it was cancelled earlier this year, in which Jordan (for the first three series, at least) played a tough cop to Hill’s sensitive, complex psychological profiler.

The pair take centre stage again in Fever of the Bone, the sixth in McDermid’s Jordan-Hill series, and her 23rd novel in total. Opening with a teenage murder victim discovered in Worcester, the story soon reverts to Jordan and Hill’s fictional stamping ground of Bradfield, in Yorkshire, where a number of sexually mutilated teenage corpses are discovered. The pressure quickly builds on Jordan to find the serial killer, but this time she has to work without her trusted confidante Hill, as her new boss, suspicious of her motives in employing the freelance profiler, has decreed that she must use internal police resources.

Hill, for his part, finds himself in Worcester, partly at the behest of a local police force keen to use his unique talents, but also to tidy up the estate of his late father, a man about whom all Hill ever knew was that he had abandoned his son at an early age.

Val McDermid is renowned for her compulsively readable police procedural novels, in which she takes pains to get right the detail of real police work (or “old-fashioned coppery”, as one character describes it).

One of the pleasures of Fever of the Bone, for example, is McDermid’s description of mutually suspicious police forces reluctant to give up any scrap of information that might give a rival force some glory, and the politicking that goes on both within a particular police force and between competing forces, a frustratingly tiresome process that has, of course, ramifications for any officer investigating crimes that straddle jurisdictions.

McDermid is also celebrated for her willingness to engage with contemporary issues (the murdered teenagers, for example, all come into contact with their killer on Bebo-style internet site called Rigmarole), and her ability to explore convincingly the darker end of the crime-writing spectrum.

Not only do her detectives investigate the kind of murders that haunt the darkest of nightmares, but her profiler, Tony Hill, takes the investigation – and the reader – a crucial step further by inhabiting the minds of sick and twisted killers, who often have a sexual motive.

That’s an explosive combination, if not particularly original, but McDermid the writer has one more trick up her sleeve.

Unlike many of her best-selling peers, McDermid understands that it’s the internal workings of her characters that make a novel tick, as opposed to their implausible feats of detection and a superhuman ability to give and take physical punishment.

There are times, in fact, when Fever of the Bonereads like a soap opera rather than a thriller, as McDermid deftly introduces a host of characters from the previous five novels, and then proceeds to broaden their experiences.

The most poignant example of this is Tony Hill’s slow and painful exhumation of the man his father truly was, as opposed to the caricature he’d had rammed down this throat by his vindictive mother.

Touching, gripping and entertaining by turns, Fever of the Boneis a hugely satisfying novel. There are caveats – it seems unlikely, for example, that a serial killer would spend months carefully grooming a series of victims, and then strike at them all within a short space of time, and continue to do so even knowing the police are hot on the trail – but those caveats are minor indeed.

Declan Burke is a freelance writer and novelist. He hosts Crime Always Pays, an online resource for Irish crime writing