The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid

The Mermaids Singing is my second foray into Val McDermid's work; my first was one of her standalone novels but The Mermaids Singing is the first in her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, on which ITV's Wire In The Blood is based. I've never seen Wire In The Blood, so came to this book with no real preconceptions about what to expect.

The novel is a gritty thriller about a serial killer torturing and murdering men before dumping their bodies in the gay district of a northern town. Institutional homophobia and the incompetence of a senior officer delay the local police force's decision to treat the crimes as linked, at which point Jordan is assigned to lead the investigation and Hill, a Home Office psychological profiler, joins the team to provide potential insights into the killer's background and lifestyle that could help Jordan focus her search.

Jordan and Hill - particularly Hill, who has a multitude of psychological issues of his own - are interesting lead characters and easy to root for, and their professional and personal relationship provides what is clearly a solid basis not just for a single book but for a long series. The supporting characters aren't especially three-dimensional, although I didn't feel this really mattered; they're primarily there to help move the plot along while we focus on the two leads, and on the killer.

The killer, for me, was actually something of a disappointment, relying quite heavily on some well-worn stereotypes - this book was first published 20 years ago and I think it's a little dated in this regard. Fairly substantial chunks of the novel are told from the killer's point of view, including some very lengthy, excited descriptions of his sadistic and gruesome torture of his victims. I'm not squeamish, so I didn't find this particularly shocking or scary - but I did find it frankly rather dull and repetitive, and largely gratuitous. My primary complaint about this book was that despite the focus on psychological profiling, the psychological elements of the story were actually quite simplistic and obvious, and secondary to what's essentially torture porn for much of the narrative.

All that said, the plot trots along at a decent pace and builds to a tense, race-against-time climax. McDermid's writing is sharp, punchy and unpretentious in a pleasing way that even brings to mind a couple of old-school, classic American crime writers. Also interesting is McDermid's apparent willingness to address police negligence and prejudice.

So, although I could find a few things wrong with this novel, I'd certainly be happy to read another in the same series and I look forward to meeting Tony Hill and Carol Jordan again at some stage.


*NB I mostly read this book myself, but I also got through a few chunks of it by listening to the audiobook -  I would give the audiobook a miss because it's very badly narrated indeed with terrible regional accents throughout. The killer sounds like a character from Wallace & Gromit, a Geordie character seems to have drifted via Cardiff and there is a Scottish character by whom I was slightly confused because he occasionally started to sound Italian. Avoid.

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