Val McDermid, most famous for her best-selling Tony Hill series, could easily rest on her laurels by turning out a book a year about the criminal profiler. That she chooses to alternate that series with stand-alone novels is to her credit, and these non-series books are often among her most interesting.
Her 26th novel opens with a nerve-shredding set piece that will send a chill down many a parent's spine. Stephanie Harker, passing through Chicago's O'Hare airport, sets off the metal detectors. While she is taken to a Perspex box to be searched, her travelling companion, five-year-old Jimmy, is left outside. As Harker watches, a uniformed man takes Jimmy by the hand and gently leads him away. Panicked, she tries to break out of the box to go after Jimmy but airport security, believing they have an unbalanced woman on their hands, taser her repeatedly as she sees the little boy disappear. McDermid vividly conveys the rising terror and panic of the situation. When an FBI agent appears, Harker explains her predicament and a search is launched. While anxiously waiting for news of Jimmy, she tells the agent how she came to be the guardian of the little boy, the son of Scarlett Higgins, British television's leading reality star.
A respected ghost writer, Harker reluctantly agreed to write the autobiography of the rags-to-riches star. But Higgins proves much more than the rather dense, scantily dressed starlet that Harker had expected. Slowly, the writer is sucked into Higgins's world, becoming a trusted friend. Higgins, a cross between Katie Price and Jade Goody, is an intriguing character and one of McDermid's most fully realised creations. Intelligent but uneducated, she manipulates the press as much as it manipulates her. Her pregnancy and marriage to a DJ are clever career moves as she gauges the likely fees from eager celebrity magazines; her instincts for managing a possibly short-lived career would make Max Clifford proud. Harker, in comparison, is more of a plot device, a way in for the reader, but McDermid does give her a complicated love life with a strangely unresolved detour into domestic violence. It jars in the context of this story but shows potential for a different kind of McDermid novel. For a writer used to the celebrity circus, Harker seems naive, taking everything that the scheming Higgins proposes at face value and failing to ask some obvious questions.
McDermid, a former Sunday tabloid journalist, has fun exposing the sham behind celebrity headlines; the phone hacking, the fake love affairs, and the carefully choreographed "candid" photographs. It is clear that she understands this world more than most, and her portrayal of life on the lower rungs of celebrity is less than alluring. Instead it is rather grubby, filled with desperate people whose claim to fame is dependent on how much of their privacy they are willing to trade for press coverage.
After the breakneck speed of the opening, the story gets bogged down with extended flashbacks of Higgins's life while Jimmy's plight becomes less central to the tale. However, McDermid keeps tension high with red herrings and plot twists. The sheer brio of her writing produces that increasingly rare thing, a genuine page-turner that doesn't insult its readers' intelligence.