Nearly a century ago, when Agatha Christie and others were pioneering the English mystery novel, to provide one corpse at the outset was considered sufficient and a second might be tolerated, but anything beyond that was thought to be in extremely poor taste. No more. My best estimate is that I’ve read 187 serial-killer novels in the past decade (and escaped, as I keep insisting, with my sanity). Most were mercifully forgettable, but I do remember a few with admiration. John Katzenbach’s “The Traveler” (1987) was inspired by Ted Bundy, whose trial Katzenbach covered as a young reporter. Thomas Harris’s “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs” introduced arguably the most memorable villain in modern popular fiction, that charming cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is at heart a serial-killer novel, even though the wondrous Lisbeth Salander steals the show. Michael Connelly’s “The Poet” was his breakthrough novel in 1996 and remains one of his best.
I would add a novel I reviewed 10 years ago, the Scottish-born writer Val McDermid’s “Killing the Shadows,” which managed to make a series of killings darkly hilarious. The killer targeted celebrated crime writers and disposed of them in ways they had made famous in their novels. It was a delicious concept, neatly executed; the book made clear why McDermid had won numerous crime-fiction prizes in England and sold millions of books all over the world.
That was then; now we have “The Retribution,” McDermid’s 25th novel, and a big, big disappointment. Like several of her earlier novels, it features Tony Hill, a crime profiler, and Carol Jordan, a police detective, two strange people who share a strange relationship. He’s a loner, lacking in social graces, “passing for human” but supposedly blessed with magical abilities to solve crimes. Here’s a glimpse of his razor-sharp mind at work: “Whatever had been niggling at the back of his mind since the previous murder was squirming harder now, but he still couldn’t nail it.” Carol is said to be an ace detective, but she’s burdened by a nasty temper and a weakness for gin. The two share a house but not a bed, at least in part because Tony suffers from impotence.
This odd couple’s adversary is a psychopath named Jacko Vance. Jacko is presented as a colorful character in the Hannibal Lecter mold. As a young man, he was a world-class athlete. He lost an arm in a heroic attempt to save some lives but went on to gain fame and fortune as England’s most celebrated “TV presenter.” Alas, in his spare time he was secretly raping and murdering teenage girls. In an earlier novel, Tony and Carol caught him, and he was sent to prison, but now he escapes and sets out to gain revenge on our dysfunctional duo. He proceeds to slaughter their loved ones, burn down Tony’s house and set a fiendish trap to throw acid in Carol’s face when she feeds her cat.
We’re told that back in his days as a TV star, Jacko would go sit by the beds of people dying of cancer — not out of sympathy, as their families thought, but because he enjoyed seeing people die. Maybe it’s the similarity in names, but Jacko’s evil exploits kept reminding me of Batman’s foil, the Joker. Jacko’s problem is that, aside from being a madman, he’s cartoonish and not very interesting.
There’s another serial killer at work in these pages, slaughtering prostitutes in unspeakable ways, but he’s just there for padding. The question is whether the loathsome Jacko will inflict terrible revenge on our two heroes, and to find out, you must wade through endless inane dialogue, ridiculous plot twists and oceans of gratuitous gore. At one point, an angry Carol declares, “I didn’t come here to beat you up for letting them down.” Elsewhere, we’re told of poor, guilt-ridden, impotent Tony: “His self-disgust plumbed new depths as his rage simmered down.” These are not people we want to spend time with.
I don’t know how the prize-winning novelist who wrote that excellent book 10 years ago could have produced this meandering mess. Sometimes writers get lazy; sometimes they’re trying too hard to maintain the book-a-year pace that publishers increasingly demand. In any event, McDermid’s fans are well advised to skip this one and hope for better luck next time.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries for Book World.
By Val McDermid
Atlantic Monthly 402 pp. $25