"The Torment of Others," Val McDermid

Pros: Fascinating mystery and characters; taut psychological thriller
Cons: Doesn’t pull its grotesque punches
Rating: 5 out of 5

 

A few years ago I discovered and fell absolutely in love with a British mystery TV series called ‘Wire in the Blood.’ In it, odd-duck profiler and psychologist Tony Hill found himself helping the police to solve grotesque, sadistic, and often sexually-motivated killings. Actor Robson Green played Tony Hill to near-pathological perfection, rendering his strange brand of insight utterly fascinating and believable.

You can imagine how thrilled I was to find out that the series was based on novels by author Val McDermid! After all, in cases like this the original books are often even better than the TV series. The problem of course was finding the time to pick up one or more of the books and find out if they’d live up to my expectations. That little problem was solved when my gem of a husband gave me books for this Valentine’s Day (now there’s a husband who knows his wife well!) and included Val McDermid’s The Torment of Others, a Tony Hill novel.

Now, this isn’t the first of her Tony Hill novels, and it clearly follows some major events for the characters, so it would be best to read the series in order if possible. That said, I believe it certainly can be read on its own if you so desire. It won’t take too long to figure out the relationships between the characters.

 

Where we are: Derek Tyler was locked away two years ago for the brutal and sickening murders of four women. He’s still very much imprisoned, but the murders have started up again. Tony, however, believes they couldn’t possibly be copycat murders—they’re the work of the same killer. Yet the forensic evidence used to convict Derek was irrefutable even without his confession, and so the police face an apparent impossibility. It seems that the killer is at once both on the loose and safely locked away.

The case is given to a newly-formed special unit, and the unit is given over to the strong leadership of Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan. She’s just coming back to work after her own traumatic experience, however, and she has a lot to prove—to herself and to those beneath and above her. She has some familiar faces working with her as well as new ones, and it remains to be seen who’ll hold up under the strain and politicking of the kind of work they do.

To make things worse, they’ve been given a cold case involving missing children and pedophiles. They’ve just gotten a break that might lead them to the perpetrator, but it almost certainly means the children are dead.

 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while exploring the range of mysteries out there, it’s that they come in almost endless variety. Some are quirky and cozy. Some are almost entirely about the characters, while others are almost entirely police procedurals. Some are bloody and gory while others are charming and reassuring.

While I enjoy nearly all of these templates, I’d have to say that for me personally, the Tony Hill novels represent the ideal blend of elements. I love the psychological details, particularly presented as they are through Tony’s novel and quirky insight rather than a textbook-type info-dump. I’ve always been something of a fan of horror, so I’m okay with the blunt and straightforward handling of gory details (if you can’t handle bloody and/or sexual material, these aren’t the books for you—the material is never prurient, but it also isn’t whitewashed).

I also adore McDermid’s skill with a mystery. She has that rare and unique ability to present a mystery that makes perfect sense in retrospect—for which you had all the clues and elements present—but in which there are enough details and confusions and red herrings that you’ll probably be kept guessing until quite late in the game. There’s plenty of forensics and procedure to keep things fascinating, but the characters are given equal importance. Every member of Carol’s team has a strong and interesting personality, and not a single one is immune to the kind of job stresses and dangers that come with the territory. The character arcs are dramatic without being melodramatic.

While I can think of reasons why this book wouldn’t suit some readers (particularly the aforementioned blunt approach to human deviance), I can’t think of a single thing I would point to as a flaw. And yes, I found the book to be every bit as good as the series.

 

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3 comments on “"The Torment of Others," Val McDermid
  1. I haven’t read anything by Val McDermid. I keep seeing his name pop up everywhere these days. I was debating whether I should venture out and stop in at a bookstore this morning. Probably not a good idea to be reading blogs with book reviews when I’m trying to fight that urge. 🙂 This does sound like a good series. I’m not at all familiar with the TV show, I’m afraid. Thanks for the great review, Heather!

  2. Kay says:

    I love “Wire in the Blood” but I’ve only read one of the books that the TV series is based on. I read the newest one, which may only be available in the UK, BENEATH THE BLEEDING. Was quite pleased with it. Definitely not for the faint-of-heart though. I knew that from the TV series. I plan to read the other books sometime and you did a great review of this one. Robson Green does a splendid job of portraying Tony Hill, doesn’t he? My husband is not as enamoured with the series as I am. He finds Tony Hill a little too weird for his taste. Those trancelike states and his odd “friendships” with crazy people/serial killers. They came to Central Texas recently (where I live) and filmed an episode of “Wire in the Blood”. Tony Hill/Robson Green in the US. It was in our local paper. Hope you enjoy all of them as much as you did this one, Heather.

  3. heather says:

    Feline: I highly recommend trying one of her books. And if you get a chance to watch the show (the original BBC show, not the American version), definitely watch at least one ep first, since Robson Green makes a great Tony Hill, which means it’s fun to envision the actor in the place of the character as you read.

    Kay: I so have to track down more of the books. I’m honestly amazed by how spot-on Green’s performance is, particularly after seeing him in other shows in which he plays utterly different characters just as convincingly. I think this book does a lot to make Hill more accessible, since you get to ‘hear’ his own take on himself, and his thoughts about how if his life had gone a bit differently, he might have ended up much more like the people he studies, and how he isn’t all that different from them as it is.

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