I seem to have a thing about mermaids at the moment as they have featured in the titles of the last two books I’ve read. But this is a very different proposition from Mrs Hancock’s mermaid, a gripping and really quite grisly crime thriller from 1995 which introduced McDermid regulars Dr Tony Hill and Detective Inspector Carol Jordan. The title is a quote from TS Eliot’s “Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
“I have heard the mermaids singing each to each/I do not think they will sing to me.”
This is the first Val McDermid novel I have read but it certainly will not be the last as it kept me gripped throughout. The tortured bodies of young men have been turning up in gay cruising areas in the fictional northern city of Bradfield. The police are initially slow to make a connection but once it dawns upon them that a serial killer is on the loose they bring in profiler Tony Hill, working on a study of using profiling techniques for the Home Office, to help out and Carol Jordan is appointed as liaison between Hill and the Police, a number of whom need some convincing about his methods.
It has been twenty-three years since this book’s publication which is a long time in the world of crime. The reader has to remember to accept profiling is in its early stages, that people use pagers instead of mobile phones and technology we take for granted today is seen as cutting edge but that shouldn’t mar enjoyment. Also, hopefully, attitudes towards gay lifestyles have also mellowed, the views and assumptions of some of the Police Officers here seem somewhat prehistoric. In the novel there are aspects which veer towards what we might consider unacceptable in our more enlightened times but McDermid is herself a gay writer writing very much of the time.
The novel switches between police procedural and the words of the killer, who is not known to us, outlining plans and it is these sections which make for some difficult reading as this is one sick individual who writes with glee about the selection of victims and the terrible tortures that are inflicted upon them. I had not realised that McDermid’s novels were quite as gritty as this, there is no hiding from the true horrors of crime here.
Tony Hill is a complex character who has fascinated the author enough to feature him in to date ten novels. He finds it difficult to form relationships, cannot act on his attraction to Carol Jordan and resorts to anonymous phone sex. For a man whose background is working around therapy he could certainly do with some. The whole process of his work as a profiler would seem more familiar to us now than at publication (“Silence Of The Lambs” is used as a reference point). Now we are more au fait as profiling has become a staple in crime fiction and movies and in such TV series as “Criminal Minds”, but there is a section where Hill is putting together his views on the serial killer which is absolutely fascinating and so well-written in that we learn so much about Hill as a character. He says to the image of the killer he is attempting to conjure up; “I’m just like you, you see, I’m your mirror image. I’m the poacher turned gamekeeper. It’s only hunting you that keeps me from being you. I’m here waiting for you. Journey’s end.”
I’m wondering whether this aspect of Hill is played down more in subsequent novels in the series but it certainly packs a punch in this debut. And it’s not all grisly. For me, McDermid can get away with the gruesome as she writes so well, with a real feel for language and a dark humour and comes across as someone who relishes words and the world of books and wants to communicate this to her readers. Although it is disturbing and chilling there is also a warmth as the author welcomes us into this fictional world of Bradfield. This comes not from the characters, events or locations but from the writing and this feels really unusual.
Plot-wise it is not outstanding and there are elements which feel a little contrived but it is such a strong introduction to a series and I think I am really going to like Val McDermid as a writer.
The Mermaids Singing was published by Harper Collins in 1995. I read the 20th anniversary edition with a foreword by Lee Child.