Book Review (ARC): How the Dead Speak by Val McDermid

The first books in this brilliant series were so very imaginative, gruesome and brutal that they are hard to live up to. Truly, Tony Hill and Carol Jordan were a force to be reckoned with – in all of their messy realities, from Carol’s growing alcoholism to Tony’s impotence. Their relationship has gone through every tragedy that you could dream up, and more besides. So the question is now: can these books survive Tony being in prison for murder, and Carol out of the police force?

In many ways, How the Dead Speak feels like an ending to Tony and Carol, and a beginning to a new series about DI Paula MacIntyre. I wouldn’t blame McDermid if so – it’s difficult to write a series of police procedurals about non police officers, and it’s also hard to see how Carol Jordan could ever come back from professional disgrace after the events of Insidious Intent.

I wasn’t shy about disliking the latter novel. I think How the Dead Speak is better, but it still has the slightly disjointed and rushed quality that marred Insidious Intent. There are so many different viewpoints and threads, and I expected them to come together in a flourish that would knock my socks off, and instead… well, they didn’t. The book seemed to peter out, without many answers, moments of excitement, or narrative cohesion. It felt like many different books and the thing it felt like the least was a thriller or mystery novel.

Tony Hill is in prison and struggling to find his place. Carol Jordan has been ousted from ReMIT and begins to work with her old nemesis Bronwen Scott, seeking justice for people accused or found guilty for crimes they didn’t commit. A new version of ReMIT has been put in place, with DCI Rutherford in charge and the old crew – Alvin, Karim, Paula and Stacey – joined by newbies Steve and Sophie. They’re investigating the discovery of thirty skeletons found on the grounds of a former convent and girls’ home.

From the beginning, we know who the murderer is, and really – he or she is second fiddle to the interpersonal dramas. In the beginning of the Hill/Jordan novels, the thrills were the point. The relationships fed off the cases and were informed by the killer’s motivations – the characters seemed immersed in their work and the darkness surrounding them. But in this book, the mystery (or lack thereof) is a distant thing – not impacting anyone or acting as a catalyst for change. Instead, McDermid concentrates on Tony’s fumblings in jail, trying to find professional purpose and avoid being beaten up. She spends time with Carol attempting to recover from her PTSD through therapy. And there’s A LOT of time on Tony and Carol missing each other, longing for each other (etc etc) in a rather tiresome way.

It’s my opinion that these books would be greatly improved if Tony and Carol would accept their close friendship for what it is, and avoid a disastrous romance. There’s simply no way in hell these two could ever make it work as partners. Further, there’s no spark between them. They have come through the fire and on the other side, they’ve been burned clean of that electricity and old passion. Instead, they’re like brother and sister – they love each other, but I don’t believe they are in love with each other.

I have no problem with reading about committed, happy (or unhappy) couples. But I don’t believe that Tony and Carol have any chemistry left, and I think the series would be rejuvenated if they accepted their friendship. Perhaps then, the spark would return? Maybe? Maybe not? Either way, I’d love to see a return to the thrills and depravity of the earlier series, and less of Tony doodling Carol’s name in the margins of his notebook.

If the series is going to transition to be about DI MacIntyre, sign me up. She’s a worthy successor to Carol and Tony, and she feels very much at the beginning of the kind of darkness that the earlier books explored so well. If it continues with Tony and Carol, I’ll still read of course – McDermid is too talented a writer for me to ever avoid her books – but I think a change of course with their relationship and their professional lives is needed for that sense of magic and possibility that I used to feel about the series.

Advertisements

Book Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

“She’s never liked us much, not since she complained that there were no boys on the island, and Reese gave her the blankest look I’ve ever seen and said, “Plenty of girls, though.”

Girls are at the centre of this riveting and gruesome novel from Rory Power – girls in all of their mysteriousness and beauty, in their messy beginnings and messy middles. It’s no surprise why Wilder Girls is getting all the buzz – not only is the cover absolutely spectacular (I mean honestly, it sells itself), but the premise is beyond intriguing.

The island takes everything…

Told from the perspective of two “heroines”, Hetty & Byatt, and also featuring their best friend Reese, Wilder Girls is the story of Raxter School for Girls, set on a remote island off Maine, ensconced in wilderness, cut off from the rest of the world and shrouded in an unknown plague known only as “the Tox”.

It’s not clear what the Tox is, exactly, except that it causes horrific bodily injuries to its sufferers. There’s a fair amount of grisly body horror here, and it’s very well done – Power doesn’t mince words, and I found myself wincing, able to feel the agony and indignities of these girls. But there’s also a certain freedom that comes from their imprisonment – the girls cannot go anywhere beyond the walls of their school (the animals in the forest are infected too), and so, they have formed a series of small communities and societies within. Normal rules break down and their desires, needs, changing minds & bodies, become heightened by the confinement. But also set free, because what could be the consequences of a kiss between girls, when outside the fences, Death walks between the trees?

The only people who are allowed to leave Raxter are the “supply team”, who meet the Navy members that come over regularly to drop off food, water and medicine. When one of the assigned girls leaves the rota, Hetty is selected to fill her place, and the story truly kicks off.

A lot of Wilder Girls is brilliant. The sense of coming of age in chaos, it reminds me sharply of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When high school truly is hell. Raxter is brimming with changing bodies and burgeoning hearts. The Tox is as inexplicable as female desire and puberty.

Where the story fails a bit however, is in the strangely melodramatic romance between Hetty and Reese. I was expecting more from two people who had already been through so much. It was extremely “insta love” and “insta breakup” that it almost felt like Power wasn’t comfortable exploring it in more detail. There’s an unneeded heterosexual romance as well (miss me with that in this kind of book). Further, the denouement was so sudden that I can’t help but feel there *must* be a sequel. If there isn’t, what the actual…?

Wilder Girls doesn’t quite live up to its terrifyingly beautiful cover, but it comes close. If there’s a sequel, I’ll be reading it.