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When the preceding novel in this series ( INSIDIOUS INTENT) was published last year, it came accompanied by a plea on McDermid's part not to reveal the end. And for good reason - it was a shocker. But it leaves me with a difficulty, as it is next to impossible to discuss the present volume without revealing at least something substantial about how the previous one ended. So be warned. If you have not yet read INSIDIOUS INTENT and plan to, don't read this review. And if you haven't read it, then you probably should before opening up HOW THE DEAD SPEAK. I will try to be careful, but it's the best I can do.
HOW THE DEAD SPEAK is the eleventh in the series centred on profiler Tony Hill and police detective Carol Jordan. The two have had a highly charged relationship over the years, with the edgy Carol frequently requiring Tony's interventions to avoid flat-out disaster. As the book opens, everything has pretty much fallen apart. Carol is no longer on the police force, no longer the head of the Regional Major Incident Team (ReMIT), which is now entrusted to someone quite different to Carol. Tony is in jail and refusing to see Carol. Now Carol is doing her best to recover - she's stopped drinking, is seeking professional help with her PTSD and trying to use her detective skills in the private sphere. To this latter end, she's been recruited by a former adversary, a barrister who is acting for a group similar to the Innocence Project, to clear a man unjustly convicted of murder.
But she is briefly diverted from her course by the intervention of Tony's dreadful mother, the horrifying Vanessa, who demands Carol track down the Ponzi schemer who has defrauded her of her life savings.
In the meantime, the members of Carol's former ReMIT squad are trying to adjust to life without Carol as they become involved in what appears at the outset to be an historical crime. A former boarding school for wayward adolescent girls has been sold by the order of nuns that ran it. When the developers move in and plough up the lawn, they discover a substantial number of bodies of young girls, dating back a number of years. A serial killer nun? Or just the sorry record of institutional failure? The case becomes complicated when another set of bodies, this time of young men, is discovered underneath the flourishing vegetable garden adjacent to the lawn. And some of these young men were recently interred.
Any author of a successful and long-running series is confronted by real problems as the protagonists face up to the passage of time. Do you, like Ian Rankin, let your characters age in real time, leading inevitably to their retirement or do you simply ignore time altogether and let them carry on in their prime indefinitely? Neither choice is completely satisfactory. In the former case, fans are indignant at the loss of a favourite hero or heroine and demand resuscitation. In the latter, boilerplate plotting is always a temptation.
Val McDermid has dealt with this problem head-on. The wrenching conclusion of INSIDIOUS INTENT shook all of the characters (well, with maybe one exception) and altered their relationships with one another profoundly. In some cases, it set in motion a process of self-examination that was very painful. The author should be congratulated on the boldness with which she has sought to breathe new life into an already successful series. And the attempt does on the whole bode well for its future.
But as far as this particular book goes, it is not McDermid at her best. The subsidiary plots (Vanessa, Innocence) are inadequately developed. Vanessa's in particular could easily have been omitted. The major plot, concerning the bodies at the convent school, is more or less fully realized, though the resolution lacks a certain drama. But the representation of the state of mind of the nuns themselves that permitted the burials to take place seems to be drawn more from an early 19th century Gothic novel than from the experience of contemporary nuns. The result feels forced and dated.
In short, anyone who has been following the careers of Tony and Carol will certainly want to read this (and probably didn't need me to tell them that). Those who haven't should not start here, but go back a few entries before embarking on HOW THE DEAD SPEAK and its predecessor. If they do, they will unquestionably not regret it. I certainly haven't, and look forward to following the course of the characters in their new and transformed lives.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2019
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Contact: Yvonne Klein (email@example.com)
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