Review: How The Dead Speak

Val McDermid – How The Dead Speak

Published by Sphere, paperback £8.99. My review is of the Little Brown hardback edition (£18.99), which I bought new.

I’ve been a big fan of Val McDermid’s books for many years, and Tony Hill and Carol Jordan are two of my favourite characters in crime fiction. I’ve reread the Wire In The Blood novels repeatedly, and even though I know what is going to happen the plots keep the pages turning. Tony and Carol and the shifting minor characters around them always satisfy; their personalities, frailties and relationships are never less than realistic and watching them grow and change across the series is a treat. So when McDermid said How The Dead Speak would be the last Tony and Carol novel for at least a while, I was devastated – which I realise is ridiculous, but still. How many people writing characters in a series over many years and many books have let them grow and change and reveal their vulnerabilities as McDermid has Tony and Carol? It has been said that the series character is the privilege of genre fiction; the privilege for the reader is to watch that character unfold and grow in front of them. I read so much, but I reread very little – and it’s never for the plots, it’s always for the characters.

(A note of caution: usually I’d say you should be able to pick up any book in a series and dive straight in, but while you could start here, the events will not have the same meaning if you haven’t read any of the earlier novels, particularly Insidious Intent.)

At the opening of How The Dead Speak, both Tony Hill and Carol Jordan are paying the price for the events at the end of Insidious Intent – though a small ray of light has appeared for Tony, in that he has finally come to a point where he can write the book which he has been failing to do so throughout much of the series. Each chapter here has an epigraph which is ostensibly a quote from said book, entitled “Reading Crime”, which is a delicious way of making pertinent points, and also a way of taking us back to various times in Tony and Carol’s professional relationship (long-time fans will delight in spotting the Easter eggs embedded in the epigraphs and elsewhere).

While Tony is trapped in a very literal sense, Carol is a prisoner of her emotions and of Tony’s diagnosis that she has PTSD. It’s not something she has the inclination to deal with, but circumstances force her to. The therapy she seeks out is in Edinburgh, far from her home and life in and around McDermid’s fictional northern English city of Bradfield, for reasons of privacy and perhaps a clean slate, too.

Meanwhile, Paula and Stacey, once of Carol’s Major Incident Team, find themselves a case while they are on a team-building exercise for their new boss, DCI Ian Rutherford – or do they? Plenty is revealed about Rutherford and his way of working as Carol’s gang is neatly brought back together, with the addition of some new recruits. Rutherford then muscles in on an investigation being led by another DCI after a developer unearths the remains of 40 young women in unmarked graves next to a former convent and home for girls run by nuns from the Order of the Blessed Pearl. It’s not something MIT would normally get involved with, but it proves a fortuitous move when a further series of bodies – of young men rather more recently deceased – are discovered in a garden elsewhere on the site. And while all this is happening, in a satisfying nod to the first Tony and Carol book, The Mermaids Singing, there’s a shadow across Bradfield’s Temple Fields district…

All this is suitably intriguing, but without Tony and Carol working directly on the cases for me they lack the urgency of previous novels in the series, though it is hugely satisfying to see Paula, and to an extent Stacey and Ambrose, finally at the forefront of an investigation. To me, plot isn’t the point of How The Dead Speak – Tony and Carol are the point. This is McDermid showing her immense skill: she weaves the plot strands together with an in-depth character study, in which the pair get a stab at redemption as they confront their demons during their forced separation.

There is perhaps the highest body count of any Wire In The Blood novel here, but we never see a death – the violence is only reported by witnesses later, not shown on the page in the moment. McDermid trusts us to read between the lines, to fill in the gaps. She knows too that we’re not here for the violence but for the “why did it happen”, and to see the characters unpick that reason why. And she and we know sometimes there is no specific reason why, as in the case of the dead girls, but that what we see now as horrific was then just how things were. The Catholic Church does not get off scot-free, but neither is it metaphorically attacked by a raging mob; McDermid makes a point of showing nuance and grey areas. If there’s an over-arching theme here, I’d say it’s salvation: for Tony and Carol, separately and jointly; for the members of the MIT in proving their worth to a new boss. And it’s what Mark Conway seeks in Temple Fields, thinking of the legacy he wants to leave. 

In the end, amid the slightly elegiac feel, there is a tentative hint at something positive in the future for Tony and Carol, which has been more than hard-earned and feels fitting if this is to be the last of the series. McDermid has said she stops a series when the characters stop talking to her, as happened previously with Lindsay Gordon and Kate Brannigan. I can but hope that Tony and Carol speak up again, because I still want to know what happens next for these wonderful characters.

Follow the author on Twitter here: @valmcdermid

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