I’ve just read a very interesting review of Ian Rankin’s new Rebus novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible; interesting because the reviewer, clearly a Rebus fan, is concerned that in parts the writing simply doesn’t have the sharpness normally expected of Rankin’s prose. Now, you have to wonder if Rankin himself isn’t aware of this because he has been quoted as saying that he is going to take a year off and that we cannot expect a book from him ready for next Christmas’s market. Rankin, of course, has the clout to be able to tell his publishers this without there being any apocalyptic come back. No one is going to cancel his contract. Very very respectfully, I would like to suggest that the same is true of Val McDermid and that a year off publishing if not to recharge batteries but at least to be able to take a little longer over each book wouldn’t be a bad thing. Her readers might get a bit edgy but better that than leave them feeling, as I do, that your latest book somehow just doesn’t quite work.
Of course, as an avid crime fiction reader I am glad to see Tony Hill and Carol Jordan back, the more so because of where we left them at the end of The Retribution, a book that scarred me to the point where I don’t think I will ever be able to read it again, even knowing, as I now do, what the followup to their personal split and Carol’s resignation from the force turns out to be. And let that stand as a warning, because I don’t think I can write about why I have doubts about this latest novel in the series without having to resort to at least some spoilers.
First of all, to go back to the Rankin review, there are definitely instances where the writing in Cross and Burn just isn’t as tight as I have come to expect. On a number of occasions I had to go back and reread a passage just to be sure what it meant and that not because of the vocabulary that was used but because of the way in which sentences were structured. I don’t expect this of McDermid. Rather I expect to be gleefully reading passages aloud because of the wonderful way in which she has brought about a particular turn of phrase.
More worrying though is the fact that this seems to me to be a very mediocre plot line from a writer who can normally put the reader through more twists and turns and unexpected revelations than you can count but who always ties up the loose ends in a way that leaves you gasping.
Now, I accept that this could not have been the easiest of books to plot. With Tony and Carol estranged and Carol out of the front line, McDermid had to contrive a storyline that would still meet the requirements of a crime novel and yet at the same time take their relationship forward, even if it that should mean confirming their separation forever. She handles the first by bringing to the fore Paula McIntyre, Jordan’s DC and now promoted as DS to the position of bagman for DCI Alex Fielding. Think you’ve heard that last name before? You probably have, but I’ll come back to that later. Paula is the fictional lead in the search for a killer who appears to be targeting women who look like Carol, including a friend of Paula and her partner, Elinor. One of the better aspects of the book is the way in which Paula and Elinor find themselves forced into a position where they have to care for Torin, the fourteen year old son of missing Bev McAndrew. This is a real traumatised fourteen year old, not a stereotyped badmouthing teenager and I hope we see more of him in future books. The twist that forces Carol to face Tony again is that he is the one arrested for the murders and it is only by bringing the two together that Paula can see any way of preventing what she is certain is a miscarriage of justice. Because, be in no doubt, DCI Fielding is heading for top and she certainly isn’t going to let something as trifling as a closer examination of the evidence stand in her way.
My problem with all of this is that the secondary plot strand diminishes the attention given to the main plot, namely what the murderer is up to, and that means that it becomes very tame in comparison with other McDermid plot lines. I will be amazed if you haven’t pinpointed who the villain of the piece is long before he’s apprehended. And while that is sometimes exactly what you’re supposed to do, I don’t think that’s the case here. There are too many other individuals slotted in as possible substitutes for that to be happening. But it’s obvious that they are possible substitutes, just as it’s obvious why Carol suddenly acquires a dog. If you haven’t realised what Flash’s part is going to be in all this two hundred pages before she plays that part you really are new to the crime scene. As a dog lover I am delighted to see Carol with a canine substitute for the ageing cat, Nelson, but Flash’s role is a cliché and McDermid doesn’t normally deal in clichés.
So, all in all, not what I expect from a Tony Hill/Carol Jordan book and while I am always glad to spend time in their company I was disappointed to find my attention being so frequently drawn away from the story by problems with the writing and the level of plotting. I come back to my frequent cry, aimed at the publishers rather than the writers: we don’t need a book every year, we need a book when it is ready.
Oh and DCI Fielding? If you watched the television series that was drawn from these books, Wire in the Blood, you will remember that half way through Carol Jordan left and was replaced by none other than that same DCI Alex Fielding. Given the part that the DCI plays in this novel I can’t help thinking that she wasn’t a replacement of whom Ms McDermid approved!