In anticipation of seeing Val McDermid at this month’s Bookmarked literary salon, I decided to read one of her early books. Simon recommended The Mermaids Singing, the first book in which she introduces Tony Hill, now the central protagonist in the Wire in the Blood TV series based on her books.
The Mermaids Singing is set in the fictional Northern town of Bradfield. When the novel opens there have been two murders and a third is about to take place. Tony Hill, a psychological profiler has been asked to help with the case, much to the disdain of some of the team members who think psychological profiling is all a bit of mumbo-jumbo. Tony confirms that the murders – young men who have been horrifically tortured and dumped in areas of the city frequented by gay men – are likely to be the work of a serial killer and works alongside the smart female officer Carole Jordan to uncover the perpetrator.
Right from the start of the novel the reader is let into the mind of the killer who keeps a recorded diary. Narcissistic and with a cold logic, the killer’s voice reveals the reasoning behind the murders, just a few steps behind the real-time events that are taking place in the police investigation. The police team is a mix of the archetypal bent copper and some key characters, notably Carole Jordan who shines as being dedicated and smart. Tony Hill has a complex mind and plenty of personal hang-ups that make him a fascinating character. Perhaps not surprisingly because of the nature of his job, he often has to go to dark places in his mind, and at times he is incredibly strong, at others completely vulnerable. He finds a good partner to work with in Carole who despite being a young, attractive woman hasn’t had a great deal of success with men. I really liked the interaction between Tony and Carole and the way that they complemented each other in the way they worked through the case.
The Mermaids Singing is definitely one of the more gruesome crime novels that I’ve read because of the sheer sadistic nature of the murders how carefully planned they were, and the twisted logic behind why the killer believes the victims deserved to die. Also, something about the way that the men are abducted – part of normal life one day, and in a living hell the next – really got under my skin. The novel had a brilliant pace, revealing just enough in each chapter to keep you hooked until the end.
The Mermaids Singing was originally published in 1995 but doesn’t feel dated apart from some of the references to technology and even then it seems just like a snapshot of that time. It’s a really original story, and Tony Hill is brilliant. I’m definitely looking forward to reading of the series to find out how Tony’s character is developed in subsequent books. I think that I might have found a new favourite crime writer to add to my list!