How agreeable it is to read a novelist who convinces one that she knows precisely what she is setting out to do and how to bring it off. Val McDermid has written some 30 crime novels. The narrative always moves easily. The settings are well imagined, the characters persuasively and sympathetically drawn, the research thorough but not obtrusive.
Insidious Intent is the tenth novel in her series featuring DCI Carol Jordan and the psychological profiler Tony Hill. They have been through a lot together and suffered a deal of wear and tear. The cracks are beginning to show. Carol especially is in a bad way. Professionally she’s on a high, having been appointed to lead the new Regional Major Incident Team (ReMIT). Personally she’s at a low ebb, reluctantly on the wagon, having just somewhat dodgily escaped a drink-driving charge, an escape which had terrible related consequences. Tony has to work hard to keep her on an even keel, and she will need all the support of her staff to make a success of ReMIt’s first case. They are a talented bunch, hand-picked by Carol, but some of them have distracting troubles of their own. Policemen in good modern crime novels are rarely disembodied intelligences with no private life.
That said, this case has a Golden Age echo. Since this is made clear very early on, one is giving little away if one says that it recalls Agatha Christie’s classic The ABC Murders, in which the murderer kills people with whom he has no connection in order to distract the police (and Hercule Poirot) from his relationship to the person he really wants to kill. It’s an unlikely scenario in real life, but, like Christie, McDermid has the skill, imagination and authority to make it both credible and gripping.
We are introduced to the murderer in the first chapter when he picks up a woman at a wedding reception he has gate-crashed. We don’t know his name, but we are told that “Kathryn McCormick’s killer was nothing if not solicitous” – nice choice of word.That’s all we know at this stage, but we soon learn why he is seeking out surrogate victims. He has of course problems that Agatha Christie’s character never encountered and couldn’t have dreamed of. This is the digital age and, as John Le Carré has observed, a world in which every transaction and footprint may be tracked makes life hard for criminals and conmen. Even when you’re alone, you’re on the radar, and it requires careful planning and ingenuity to remain in the dark.
McDermid is very good, splendidly lucid, in her handling of what are still to many of us the mysteries of computer technology. She doesn’t blind or baffle ignorant readers, while at the same time, I think, managing to please those who are themselves well-versed in the stuff. Pleasing and satisfying two such distinct readerships is very difficult, but she brings it off.
Her villain is both disagreeably credible and suitably villainous; nobody is likely to feel any sympathy for this cool, self-regarding psychopath. This is as it should be. Anything else would disturb the balance of the novel. As it is, we have a hunt in which we hope that the hounds will catch their quarry and tear it to bits. The contrast between the smug conceit of the villain and the often troubled private lives of his pursuers ensures not only that our sympathies go the right way but points up the enormity of murder.
The ending is sudden and horrible. That is almost all that should properly be said about it. One might add only this: it is surprising and one’s first reaction may be that it’s improbable and therefore wrong. Certainly it is disturbing. But McDermid has so subtly prepared us for it, even if we haven’t noticed that this is what she is doing, that on reflection you may find yourself thinking “that’s how it had to be”.
We read novels for pleasure, and Insidious Intent is thoroughly pleasing, engaging, indeed compelling, a very fine piece of craftsmanship. It will reward those who have followed the Jordan and Hill sequence, and send latecomers back to the earlier novels.
Insidious Intent is published by Little, Brown, £18.99