Review: Val McDermid – The Retribution

I’m ashamed to say that this is only the second Val McDermid book that I’ve read. For a devotee of crime fiction this is like saying you’ve not read Agatha Christie. For like Christie, Val McDermid is a prolific writer, author of 25 crime novels whose writing is enjoyed by millions. The reason for my omission is fairly straightforward. About fifteen years ago someone gave me a copy of Wire in the Blood as a Christmas present and I was so appalled at the way one of the victims was killed that it stayed with me for years. I couldn’t bear to read any more of the writer’s books for fear that I would again have to deal with the brutal savagery of the killings. But McDermid is unapologetic about her writing. In a recent BBC interview she argues that it’s not for writers to ‘airbrush’ violence out of books. Interestingly she also said in the same interview that there are some writers which as a reader of crime fiction she prefers not to read as she feels that they cross a line into gratuitous violence. I never thought McDermid’s violence as gratuitous, I just found it unpalatable.

What made me try her again was firstly her personality. She is incredibly generous to other writers whom she encourages and promotes and is also very articulate about the crime fiction genre. Also, I suspect that I have read a great deal worse in crime fiction in the intervening years and that I have become more immune to brutal imagery. So I downloaded the book onto my Kindle and read it this week. What I hadn’t realised – and I’m sure that this is immediately obvious to McDermid’s readers, is that The Redemption features the very character that put me off the writer’s books all those years ago. Jacko Vance, a charming psychopath jailed for a series of murders, in this latest book escapes from the prison and sets about meting out revenge to those who he holds responsible for his incarceration. What I hadn’t appreciated in Wire in the Blood is how well written a character Jacko is. He is a true psychopath who takes a gratuitous pleasure in killing his victims. I have to admit that I did skim read the new batch of murders he commits. I don’t know what it is about McDermid’s writing but it really has the power to make me recoil when she writes about the killings. I think it’s partly due to the dramatic tension that she builds up so well.

I liked the characters of Dr Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan but I have obviously missed the subtleties of their relationship in the intervening books. There is a parallel murder investigation in The Redemption involving a serial killer who is preying on sex workers in Bradfield. I didn’t feel that this story line was as well-developed as the Jacko Vance murder hunt which was a shame as the concept was quite interesting.

So will I be reading Val McDermid again? Almost certainly but I think I will go on recommendations rather than randomly select titles myself. She obviously writes excellent thrillers – I’ve just got to steel myself for the minutiae of the acts of violence that I find so difficult to stomach.

For reviews by readers more au fait with McDermid’s books, try crimesquad.com,  Savidge Reads and The Book Whisperer

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11 thoughts on “Review: Val McDermid – The Retribution

  1. Sarah – Thanks for this well-written and thoughtful review. I agree completely that Val VcDermid is a master at building tension. I understand what you mean about the horrific ways in which some of the victims in her novels are killed, and I admit I’m not crazy about that myself. But McDermid writes a compelling novel whose characters stay with one. I find myself caring about the people she portrays.

    • Yes I agree about how the characters stay with you. I’m glad I read the book – you can’t judge an author by one book, especially a writer as prolific as McDermid.

  2. I have read most of Val McDermid’s books over the years (she wrote two vg series before she hit the big time). She has definitely toned down the violence in recent years. Of her later novels, I think some of her standalones are better than the Hill/Jordan series which has become a bit stuck (despite some of the juggling re change of location, etc), mainly because the central characters of Hill and Jordan are not made enough of, I think. A Darker Domain is very good, with the miners’ strike at the core, and so are A Place of Execution and The Grave Tattoo (all standalones).

  3. I have a bit of a similar experience with McDermid Sarah, I’m definitely avoiding the Hill/Jordan books as not my thing but am going to try others. I just bought TRICK OF THE DARK via google eBooks (to try out the service more than anything) so we’ll see. I do like her as a person very much for the same reasons as you so I want to like her books.

    By the way I’ve been quite rude in not visiting for a little while, I’ve been playing with my Google Reader account since google updated the interface and I inadvertently deleted quite a few of my feeds. Doh! But you’re re-instated now 🙂

  4. I’m planning to do a review of one of McDermid’s serial killer books, comparing it to one from the Golden Age. Interesting contrast in the handling of violence of course!

  5. Pingback: Review: Val McDermid – A Place of Execution « crimepieces

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