When should a crime writer abandon their signature character? Does it come down to a struggle between their bank balance and their creative instincts - in other words, bite the bullet of lower royalties in order to pen those less- commercial standalone novels the novelist really wants to write? Val McDermid’s predecessor and fellow Scot Conan Doyle tried and failed to shrug off the sleuth that he felt had become his old man of the sea (the nuisance who couldn’t be removed from Sinbad’s shoulders).!”
Similarly, Chandler and Fleming commiserated in their mutual cups over what bores their protagonists had become. In McDermid’s case, she has repeatedly demonstrated that the books that do not feature her criminal profiler Tony Hill are among her best work – but the new novel, Splinter the Silence, has the unhappy Hill centre stage again. Does McDermid still feel the need to keep his synapses firing, or has an editor pleaded: “Another Tony Hill, Val - please
But who cares about the rationale? That’s between McDermid and her publisher; this is McDermid at something close to her best. On the surface, Splinter the Silence is a tough crime thriller with an unusual depth of incident and characterisation. Hill is looking into a series of suicides among women who were victims of cruel online bullying. But is there more to the deaths than there appears? And is Hill on the trail of yet another serial killer? His erstwhile colleague, ex-DCI Carol Jordan, still has her own problems, but is soon locked in with Hill on a case that brings out their very best – at considerable personal cost.
The elements here are ones we’ve seen before, but this is no simple crime narrative. Yes, we have the briefing, the protagonists’ personal problems, the walk-on characters, the acute sense of locale that is a McDermid speciality. But the convergence of these elements, moving inexorably towards the vertiginous climax, provides the frisson. Once again, it is interesting to note that, like her late colleagues PD James and Ruth Rendell (whose dual mantle as the British Queen of Crime Fife-born McDermid has inherited), she is more concerned with her male characters than her women: Hill, as ever, is more complex than his cohort Jordan, however many problems McDermid heaps upon her – though the feminist underpinnings here are significant. And if the thought of another serial killer makes your heart sink, be aware that McDermid’s 29th novel proves she has not lost an iota of her expertise.
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