Review: Cross and Burn

Cross and BurnI 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.

‘Dial M for Misogyny’ by PM Newton in Anne Summers Reports, Issue 4, September 2013: 56-62.

Tune into Radio National Books and Arts Daily on Wed 6 Nov for my on air review.


About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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14 Responses to Review: Cross and Burn

  1. kathy d. says:

    I think I’ve been rendered rather shocked at this review. Not of the review. I haven’t read the book but I agree with the point of view in general about gratuitous violence in books, with women as the victims of the worst sadism. I can’t read books with these aspects, and I, too, skip over violent scenes if I happen to be reading a book and these events crop up. I wonder who likes these books? Who reads them? And why are these readers attracted to them? I shudder to think.
    Yes, as women, we unfortunately live with an awareness of dangers. A woman was groped as she entered my building one night a few months ago. That raises an alert to all women in the building. I figure out which street and which side of the street to walk down at night. All sorts of calculations go into our minds when trying to live our lives to try to be safe.
    And we all have tales to tell.
    I wish crime fiction was about plots, stories, characters, interesting motives — and yes, social issues and political points, too. And just skip the gore and sadistic, misogynistic violence against women. I don’t understand why this sells nor why excellent writers like Val McDermid (and scores of male writers) resort to these plot devices.


    • angelasavage says:

      Kathy, I share your bemusement, all the more so when I witness the popularity of books about sadistic serial killers — or what I call ‘stalk and slash’ novels — among women.

      Agatha Christie suggested there is an instinctive need that is satisfied by terror; and Stephen King calls fear the “finest emotion”. Perhaps for some readers, the crimes and criminals need to be over the top, almost cartoon-like, to afford escapist thrills. If the violence is too much like real life, there’s no escape in that.

      But, like you, stalk and slash novels are not what I choose to get my kicks.


  2. Angela – I couldn’t agree more on a number of counts. McDermid does indeed know how to put a good story together and get readers engaged. That said though, I too am completely over misogynist serial killers. Most real-life killers don’t kill for that reason, and I prefer my crime fiction to reflect everyday life more. Much as I respect McDermid, I probably will give this one a miss.


    • angelasavage says:

      Margot, I meant what I said about being able to appreciate the novel’s strengths by ceasing to engage with the serial killer sub-plot. I am a fan of McDermid — The Grave Tattoo is probably my favourite of hers — and I’m not put off reading her again per se. But I will be paying closer attention to the back cover blurbs in future.


  3. Thanks Angela for this review as I was wavering about reading this book. For many years my only exposure to Val McDermid was a couple of the earlier Tony Hill books and after the second of those I decided she was not an author for me…the violence in the books was so graphic and disturbing and even though the victims were invariably women the absurdity of the situations did seem to demean the real world violence that women suffer that I just figured she was an author I would not be reading. Then I saw her interviewed and she spoke eloquently about the issue of violence in her books and said that her other books (mostly standalones) were far less violent and that also she was now in position (due to her success) that she could argue with her publishers about the level of violence even in the Tony Hill books. I subsequently read and thoroloughly enjoyed several of her standalone novels and was almost at the point of trying this one but thankfully you have saved me from that experience.


    • angelasavage says:

      Bernadette, I agree with you about McDermid’s standalone novels. I loved The Grave Tattoo, for example. And having had the pleasure of meeting Val during one of her Melbourne visits, I know her to be a smart, warm and thoughtful person.

      And as I suggested in my comment to Kathy above, I’m guessing the appeal of her graphically violent novels for her loyal readers (apart from the appealing cast of main characters) lies in the difference between the absurdity of the crimes portrayed and the reality of violence against women, which offer escapist thrills if you’re into that kind of thing.

      Clearly, we’re not. 😉


  4. kathy d. says:

    My question is why do publishers want a high level of violence, as validated by Bernadette. And who buys these books and why are they attracted to the brutality? What does this reflect in society or are publishers encouraging violent behavior or at least thinking?


  5. Thoughtful review, Angela. It’s not a genre I particularly enjoy or read, which will come as no surprise. And yes, as Kathy. D says, crime fiction can do such amazing things when it concerns itself with “characters, interesting motives — and yes, social issues and political points, too” as Angela’s investigations into Thai social and cultural mores and Western responses to those. To that I’d add Malla Nunn, with her exploration of early apartheid South Africa, and Sulari Gentill’s re-engagement with the cosy as a way of revisiting Australian history between the wars.

    It’s a big crime church, I just fear that a lot of innovative and exciting work is get lost under a sea of blood, and that the genre itself risks being defined by body count and inventive new tortures.


    • angelasavage says:

      “I just fear that a lot of innovative and exciting work is get lost under a sea of blood” — you do have a way with words, Pam!

      Whenever I despair about the direction of contemporary crime fiction, I remind myself of the bloodiness of the ancient Greek myths, ancient Chinese ghost stories, Norse sagas, Shakespearean tragedies. I guess many cultures have different ways of enabling citizens to experience fear, even terror, in the safety of stories.

      That said, these stories were also characterised by a moral complexity that is missing from serial killer and torture porn narratives, as you point out in your excellent article.


  6. kathy d. says:

    Yes! Yes! to P.M. Newton’s comments, could not agree more.


  7. kathy d. says:

    Aauuugh! I tried to get The Old School when it came out and couldn’t. I’ll try again.
    Every comment I’ve read here by P.M. Newton I’ve agreed with, and am eager to read her book.
    The late eminent reader Maxine Clarke called these “torture porn” books. I don’t get the popularity at all nor the sexism involved.


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