I agreed to review Cross and Burn, Val McDermid’s latest novel in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, for Radio National Books and Arts Daily but struggled to finish it. McDermid says on her website that the book’s title comes from the saying, ‘the problem with bridges is knowing which ones to cross and which ones to burn.’ That may be so, but this book made me CROSS and want to BURN it!
The traumatic events of the previous Tony Hill/Carol Jordan novel, The Retribution, are not so much alluded to as laid out in Cross and Burn. Former criminal profiler Tony Hill has failed former DCI Carol Jordan and as a result, her brother and his wife were brutally murdered by a serial killer. In Cross and Burn, Jordan has left the police, cut off all ties with Hill and is removing all traces of the serial killer’s presence in her late brother’s home, ironically by destroying the building he so lovingly renovated. Meanwhile, Hill is living a hermit’s life in a narrowboat moored in the Minster Canal Basin. The house he thought he could call home was gone, ‘a burned-out shell that was an uncomfortable metaphor for what had happened to the life he’d imagined he could lead there.’
The surviving members of Jordan’s disbanded Major Incident Team (MIT) are scattered to the wind. Detective Sergeant Paula McIntyre is trying to adjust to life at Bradfield Metropolitan Police under the ambitious DCI Alex Fielding, while on the home front, the teenage son of a ‘misper’ (missing person) moves in with McIntyre and her partner Dr Elinor Blessing. A less fortunate ex-MIT member remains in therapy, blinded and disfigured by an acid trap meant for Jordan.
In the midst of all this personal and professional angst is another serial killer with a penchant for women who look like Carol Jordan and who the back cover blurb describes as ‘like no other, hell-bent on inflicting the most severe and grotesque punishment on his prey.’
More fool me for not having read the back cover blurb before agreeing to review the book.
The problem isn’t the writing. McDermid knows how to craft a page turner. Most of her characters are emotionally well-rounded, with family lives and circles of friends that have to be balanced against the demands of work — refreshing in the police procedural/thriller genre. The psychological drama that plays out between Hill and Jordan is compelling, and the book is bound to satisfy the legions of fans of this series.
A generous reading says McDermid also makes an effort to elicit readers’ sympathy for her victims, before allowing her serial killer to viciously dispatch them.
But personally, I am over serial killers and their sadistic terrorisation of women in crime fiction. In her recent essay ’Dial M For Misogyny’, PM Newton observes:
There’s a lack of moral complexity in these serial-killer narratives; the victims are tragic, the villains are monstrous, their crimes unforgivable, those who take them on are heroic…
I don’t want to follow McDermid inside the head of a psychopath who is ruminating on how out of tune with the environment women are, how we walk in the world ‘with no understanding of the threats that were everywhere’. In the end, I managed to finish the book only by skipping over the chapters that were told from the serial killer’s point of view and that of his victims, omissions which actually served to increase my appreciation of the book’s strengths.
I consider myself relatively in tune with my environment. As a woman in Australia, I know I am more at risk of violence from someone I know than from a stranger. Even though I live within blocks of where Jill Meagher died, I know the brutal stranger attack behind her death is the exception rather than the rule.
But as Newton writes,
the rabid serial killer dispatching a procession of victims in a spiral of sadistic scenarios is the contemporary bogeyman. But it is a bogeyman so removed and extreme and inhuman that it does not accurately reflect the reality of violence that women face on a daily basis. This cultivation of women’s fears of the outrageous monster allows the smaller, realer monsters of everyday experience to fade from consciousness…’
Perhaps McDermid anticipated such criticism, as the edition of Cross and Burn I read included at the end a free short story, ‘Keeping on the Right Side of the Law’. Narrated in the first person, it is the story of ex-con Terry ‘Tel’ Finnieston’s attempts to go straight to win the heart of his true love, Kimmy. ‘I’m doing the right thing and I get paid for it,’ he says of the job he is offered by a defence lawyer to rough up the perpetrators of domestic violence.
A reminder of the real nature of violence against women and a nice revenge fantasy perhaps. But hardly ‘doing the right thing’.
Cross and Burn by Val McDermid (2013) is published by Little Brown, distributed in Australia by Hachette.
Tune into Radio National Books and Arts Daily on Wed 6 Nov for my on air review.