After listening to her nonfiction book, Forensics, reading Val McDermid’s psychological thriller series was an easy choice. I liked her detailed writing style, and was glad to see it here also. The Mermaids Singing is told from two points of view. First we have the killer’s perspective. Then we have that of the investigative team, especially profiler Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Inspector (DI) Carol Jordan.
The team is investigating killings of young gay men, who are killed elsewhere and dumped in the part of town with primarily gay bars. Given that it was published in 1996, the prevailing attitudes are less accepting and more prejudiced that what today’s authors would write.
Another part of the story that shows its age is the skepticism around criminal profiling. Dr. Tony Hill is a psychologist who works with killers committed to mental institutions. He has plenty of insights on our killer, as does the perceptive DI Jordan. They have to fight extra hard to get the brass to take them seriously. That’s somewhat different from today’s books and shows.
The killings are particularly brutal, including some “inventive” and historically-based torture. In fact, I may lay off thrillers for a bit after this. Too much begins to disturb my sleep.
Another reason to make a switch is how quickly I solved the murders. After enough mystery books, it just comes too easily. In this case, I don’t think McDermid failed me. She just produced a plot line built around a specific time and its prejudices. That made guessing the truth seem simple to me.
The Mermaids Singing is tautly written. McDermid describes the investigation as a roller coaster more than once. In fact, that how the book feels as well. Her style is clean, except where the criminal details are involved. Then it’s suitably dirty and disturbing.
I liked both DI Jordan and Dr. Hill. They make a good team, and I won’t hesitate to read more from the series. I wonder what they’d be like with 21st century computers, cell phones, and DNA banks from which to investigate.
Dr. Hill is a particularly flawed hero, and I’m glad McDermid wrote him this way. He could have been an arrogant character, but it was eminently more interesting for him to be more tentative.
On a side note, the title and one epigraph come from a T.S. Eliot poem called The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It’s a unique and literary reference, which never gets mentioned in the body of the book. I did find some commentary about it illuminating, but am glad I didn’t read it beforehand.
If you like psychological thrillers with roller coaster plots, and don’t mind some graphic depictions, give Mermaids a try.