The Retribution by Val McDermid

“I won’t deny that the people who do this kind of thing fascinate me. The more disturbed they are, the more I want to figure out what makes them tick.”

I’ve been reading Val McDermid for several years now, and that makes me a fan. I first came across this versatile author through the book The Mermaids Singing which was, as it turned out, the first in a new series. This series teamed together psychologist Tony Hill with DI Carol Jordan, and these books then formed the basis for a television series, Wire in the Blood. I use the term versatile when describing McDermid because while she’s a prolific writer who sticks to crime, she’s capable of seismic shifts while still keeping within the perimeters of the genre. She’s written a number of stand-alone psychological novels ( A Darker Domain, A Place of Execution) which are comparable to the best psychological novels written by Ruth Rendell, and in 2011 she wrote the crime novel Trick of the Dark which featured a lesbian detective. This novel that may well herald a new series character. There’s also the Kate Brannigan seriesa series which features a Manchester PI –much lighter fare for McDermid, and the Lindsay Gordon series. It’s all a matter of taste of course, but I think McDermid’s stand-alone psychological crime novels are her finest work.

The Retribution is the seventh novel in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. Since a series detective novel covers the personal life of its main character(s), The Retribution is no exception. Life is marching on for both Carol and Tony. She has just taken a new job in West Mercia and so she’s on the verge of moving out of Bradford when two things stop her in her tracks:

1) A serial killer stalks the streets of Bradford picking up prostitutes, torturing and killing them

2) The bold prison escape of Jacko Vance who’s hell-bent on revenge against Tony and Carol.

Jacko Vance appeared in the second novel in the Hill/Jordan series, Wire in the Blood. While he savagely murdered seventeen teenage girls and a police officer, only one charge stuck, but it’s a life sentence, nonetheless. The novel begins with Jacko Vance’s intricate escape plan from the lower security prison he’s managed to fanangle his way into, and then smoothly segues into the discovery of the corpse of the third victim of Bradford’s newest serial killer.

The novel includes tidbits of forensic information for crime groupies as well as revealing the complexities of the inner-thoughts of two homicidal maniacs. Jacko Vance is a good-looking, manipulative former TV personality who was at one time an athlete until an accident left him with just one arm. Vance is also extremely intelligent:

Escapology was like magic. The secret lay in misdirection. Some escapes were accomplished by creating an illusion through careful planning; others were genuine feats of strength, daring and flexibility, both mental and physical; and some were mixtures of both. But whatever the methods, the element of misdirection always played a crucial role. And when it came to misdirection, he called no man his master.

Best of all was the misdirection that the onlooker didn’t even know was happening. To accomplish that you had to make your diversion blend into the spectrum of normal.

Makes me think of the way Ted Bundy wore a fake sling or a cast in order to sway his victims into seeing him as potentially harmless and in need of help.

 As an evil creation, Jacko Vance strains the bounds of believability at times. This is always a danger when writing this type of novel, and while serial killers can be brilliant, cunning, and athletic all in one, at times Jacko seems more suited for an X-man villain than anything else. While The Retribution is a page-turner, no argument here, the details are gruesome. The novel is certainly concerned with the why, but the how also plays no small role. The term ‘crime novel’ covers such a vast range of material, and those who like cozies will keel over if they read this. No comforting tea and crumpets, no bloodless crimes that occur off the page. Some pages are like reading a crime scene report, so be prepared.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley.


Filed under Fiction, McDermid, Val

6 responses to “The Retribution by Val McDermid

  1. I do agree with all of your comments. Some of this novel is just not believable. Not one of her best. The romance/nonromance between Tony and Carol has gone on too long.

  2. I seem to collect her novels but never read one. I would have thought she isn’t subtle enough for you but since I haven’t read her, I don’t really know.
    they are not all part of a series, are they? I’m not sure abou the titles of those I have, as I bought some in German.
    Do you like Karin Slaughter? I like her a lot. She is rather graphic. I’d say the how is even more important than the why in her books.

  3. I should try some McDermid some time, but she’s not high on my priorities I admit. This definitely doesn’t sound the one to start with. Had you read all the previous six? That element of the personal life of the characters you mention is a real strength of these series. Even if the individual volume isn’t the best, like here, there’s still the interest of seeing the characters progress.

    Which makes it sound like a soap opera, but the difference between soap opera and drama is in large part the quality of the execution and whether characters remain internally consistent (drama) or are bent to the needs of the present plot (soap).

  4. Max: I read the first one and then this one. There’s a long unresolved problem between the two series characters. There’s a romantic edge between them but he’s impotent. The relationship seems stagnant as they’ve been stuck on the same square for too long.

    I prefer her stand-alone novels.

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