by Maurice Mierau
Val McDermid is a Scottish-born crime novelist who established herself in the 1990s. The Last Temptation is her latest book, and the last in a trilogy that features Tony Hill, a psychological profiler of serial killers. Most of McDermid's other novels are serials with recurring characters detective Kate Brannigan and journalist Lindsay Gordon. McDermid herself spent sixteen years working as a journalist, and read English at Oxford. In a review with Denise Mina, McDermid says that literary fiction "became so self-reverential in the eighties and nineties it all but disappeared up its own arse. The success of crime fiction shows that there is a place for narrative."
McDermid's posh degree and argument with snotty literary types suggest she is an intellectually ambitious writer working in a commercial genre, and that is apparent in The Last Temptation. The book opens with epigraphs from T.S. Eliot and the "scientific director of Wehrmacht Psychology in 1938," followed by a map of northern Europe and "Case Notes" set up in courier font to look like a reproduced page from a typewriter. This dramatic introduction of real-life documents and portentous quotation is reminiscent of Minette Walters's work in books like The Shape of Snakes. McDermid also writes strong descriptive prose, as in the novel's opening:
"Blue is one colour the Danube never managesÓ. Occasionally, where boats gather, she achieves a kind of oily radiance as the sun shimmers on a skin of spilled fuel, turning the river the iridescent hues of a pigeon's throat."
The plot of The Last Temptation has a classic shape, with twin converging narratives centered on two point of view characters, Carol Jordan, a star cop from England on a dangerous assignment in Europe, and Tony Hill, the serial killer specialist. The details of international policing, drug and human trafficking, Internet communications, child abuse, and serial murder are all handled well. This is definitely a page-turner. You can see the influence of writers like Mary Wings with lesbian characters as part of the police team, although McDermid relegates them to minor roles and makes sure her principals are straight (Tony Hill needs Viagra, but that's no big deal). I note McDermid owns two more BMWs than Wings (who has none).
Although the novel is entertaining and will please existing fans there are a number of problems. I frequently felt that McDermid was telling a scene instead of showing it, sometimes perhaps assuming that previous books in the trilogy had established the emotional lives of her characters. For example this early musing on Tony's inner state: "Ó for Tony, better than bearable was as good as it had ever been." This begs the question: What is it that makes Tony's personal expectations so low? If McDermid thinks her fans already know Tony's demons, so that there's no point in describing them again, she's assuming the initial demonstration was convincing and that we're all fans who've read the previous books in the trilogy. The same issue comes up in a scene with Carol Jordan and Tony Hill:
"Once they were settled in the study with mugs of coffee, present constraints somehow slipped away and the old ease that had existed between them reasserted itself."
The flatness of the prose mirrors the affectless scene.
Tony even talks like a character sketch rather than a person: "There's no place for people like me in today's offender-profiling strategy" he says at one point. I wished he was right. Then we get Carol Jordan reflecting on the criminal whose organization she infiltrates through her undercover work: "Ó a creep like Radecki Ó was nothing more than a gangster with a veneer of sophistication." Yes, but how can this guy love opera so much and still be such an evil bad-ass? McDermid also has Carol Jordan mouth this dialogue to the evil Radecki: "women who make it in our business have to be twice as ruthless as the men." Maybe this is post-feminism for female police agents posing as tight-skirted criminals.
There are a lot of dialogue tags that just seem wrong, like "Carol interrupted" when Carol has not interrupted, "Tony gabbled" when he's not gabbling, and "Carol spluttered" when she is not engaged in spluttering. When the serial killer is cornered by the relentless but mysteriously tortured Tony Hill, he makes "a harsh sound that might have been intended as a laugh," a clichT so old it pre-dates Black Mask magazine.
The Last Temptation is best at throwing you down the tunnel of a shocking, rapidly moving plot. In terms of sheer plot velocity, Minette Walters and Ian Rankin are not as strong as McDermid. What I missed in this book was Walters's fully drawn characters and Rankin's amazing evocation of place. The Last Temptation is worth taking to the beach; I know it's not summer¨ you should probably wait for the paperback and the sun before buying this novel. ˛