Marking the trends in popular literature is an entertaining game, but when you’re out of the fever and looking back on crazes of the past, you get the chance to see that in the voracious rush my make some money, the publishers did in fact come across a gem or two. Around the time that The Silence of the Lambs won its Academy Award, the traditional publishing houses took a turn into the creepy by putting out a ridiculous amount of psychological thrillers. They wanted to let their readers into the heads of the bad guys and the beds of the good and soon-to-be-dead girls.
Although a somewhat diminished market continues today, in those first few years there was a stunning amount of high quality scare-you-down-to-your toes books floating around. The best book to come out of that era came from the United Kingdom and Scottish author Val McDermid. Already somewhat successful with a series of novels about her investigative reporter heroine Lindsey Gordon and private investigator Kate Brannigan, Val branched out and created two of the most compelling characters in the genre of mystery: Detective Inspector Carol Jordan and Forensic Profiler Doctor Tony Hill. Then, like every loving parent, once she created these two she put them to the test, starting with the best psychological thriller I’ve read in twenty years and then going on to more complex and gruesome thrillers from that point forward.
The BBC series based on these characters The Wire in the Blood, though good, does nothing for the initial thrill ride of their first appearance together in The Mermaid’s Singing. The theme, common at the time, involved serial killing: the almost ritualistic torture and killing of good looking single men, their bodies left on gruesome display in the gay quarter, Temple Fields, Bradfield. When a fourth body is found, Detective Inspector Jordan finds herself recruiting some unlikely help in professor and profiler Doctor Tony Hill, thus beginning a professional and personal relationship that would span six books and almost ten years.
The killer, Handy Andy, is something unlike anything either of them had dealt with before: his kills aren’t for any particularly apparent motive, he takes his time and his tortures ring somewhat of classical art. They are not about justice, or fear, or even hate, despite the apparent targeting of the gay population. They sing of terrible beauty and disappointment. Andy leaves no clues, no hint of when he’ll strike next, just this unerring sense of urgency about his work – the displays of his art.
What Val McDermid does best is to get into the lives of her primary characters, both good and bad. Handy’s diary (titled somewhat creepily Love .001), if read alone, is a noir masterpiece in and of itself. Mixing that razor sharp glimpse of madness with the loneliness of Tony’s broken life and Carol’s hunger for justice, success, and silence inspires shivers in the reader because, more often than not, you are left thinking that at one point in your life you’ve shared thoughts with all of these characters – the good, the bad, and the hurt, and that alone compels you to churn through pages that are, at times, dripping in darkness and blood. And there is NO better ending to a mystery in the English language that I have found yet. I have been reading mysteries for thirty years, starting with Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys and moving on up, devouring everything I can. Because of this, I usually get a pretty good handle on what’s happening and on who the killer is. I won’t spoil it except to say: I DID NOT SEE THIS COMING. And that, more than anything else, makes this one of the best reads for a cold night EVER. So, to repeat… thank you, Thomas Harris. You did good with Hannibal Lecter. But screw the Silence. I’ll opt for the singing.