How the Dead Speak follows directly from the dramatic events at the end of Insidious Intent, the last book in the series, so if you want to avoid spoilers, look away now…
It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider what would happen if you tried to pitch How the Dead Speak as the beginning of a new series, or even a standalone. Here goes.
There’s this detective who’s in a team that’s been rebuilt from another team and hasn’t really gelled. So, she’s the protagonist? No, that would be the crime profiler who used to work with her but he’s in jail. And her old boss. She has left the police and is living on the moors and getting into carpentry. There’s this great chemistry between them and — So they’re going to get together? No, they’ve been in love with each other for over two decades now but they’ve both got their demons. Right — so this non-couple couple are tackling the main plot? No, that would be the detective who’s in the team that’s been rebuilt…
Of course, people are invested in these characters, and they are invested in McDermid as an author, so they’re happy to go with this, even if, as the saying goes, you wouldn’t start from here. I’m one of those people myself so the fact that they’ve moved a long way from the premise of the series – the chemistry between detective Carol Jordan and criminal profiler Tony Hill as they solve complex and traumatic crimes involving serial killers which awaken their own demons – I still want to know what happens next. But I’m not sure about the particular direction of the last few books.
I was pretty disappointed in Insidious Intent. There were numerous holes in the plot which culminated in Tony killing the suspect in a crime, supposedly to stop Carol from doing it, and then somehow only getting convicted of manslaughter (I’m not a lawyer but I’m pretty sure killing someone as a favour to a friend does not get you off a murder charge). Now he’s in prison, writing his book, when he’s not just trying to survive violence, intimidation and foul-smelling cellmates.
He’s also refusing to see Carol until she gets therapy. This, for me, is problematic. Tony is supposed to be empathetic, caring and clever. He must know that going into therapy purely because someone in your life is coercing you into doing so, is unlikely to lead to a healthy recovery. Anyone who succumbed to such pressure would likely, er, need therapy. This is just one unfortunate example of McDermid sacrificing the long-term integrity of her characters to make an immediate plot gain.
Meanwhile, their former colleague Paula McIntyre and her fellow detectives are following up a case with some dead bodies in a former convent (and blaming the social worker for all the failings they uncover, natch). Even though some of the deaths took place in the last decade, apparently no one had been there or noticed anything amiss, not health professionals, schools inspectors, or even the police. This strains credulity. Of course there have been recent horrific cases of large-scale abuse but what made them shocking was that they were known about to professionals but no, or insufficient, action was taken.
Carol is involved in two freelance investigations. First, Tony asks her to help out his evil mother go after a conman (even though he won’t see Carol, he’s not above asking for her help when he’s being blackmailed) and one is joining forces with her former nemesis, defence lawyer Bronwen Scott, to investigate an alleged miscarriage of justice. And Tony’s getting the prisoners onside by teaching them to meditate.
Then the convent case throws up other bodies at the convent site. It seems someone else was taking advantage of the opportunity to dispose of unwanted corpses. A suspect is identified (to the reader and to the police) fairly early and the rest of the novel is about building the case, rather than finding out who’s responsible, along with friction in the team, as one person refuses to believe that they have identified the right suspect.
Along the way, Paula finds out something that will help Carol with her miscarriage of justice and blithely passes it on to her (though apparently not to her senior officer). Again this is sacrificing character for plot. Paula is a conscientious and ambitious officer. Would she really leak information to a civilian without at least agonising about it a bit? Considering the consequences for her career and for the police?
What to say about this book? Despite all these reservations, I kind of enjoyed it. It had McDermid’s customary page-turniness and I enjoyed hanging out with some old friends for a few hours. But it’s so much less interesting than the brilliant early novels. They were intense, both in the darkness of the crimes, and the way they went deep into the souls of the protagonists. Now we’re swimming on the surface.
After over two decades the Carol and Tony will-they-won’t-they is getting stale. You just want to slap them and tell them to move on. McDermid is capable of so much better than this and I think she knows it. In a recent Bookseller interview about her time judging the Booker Prize, she said, “In a way, a lot of the books made me think again about my own work, because at their peak writers are taking chances, taking risks, and it made me sit down and think, ‘Am I pushing myself hard enough?’”
I think you know my answer to that.
I received a copy of How the Dead Speak from the publisher via Netgalley.
View How the Dead Speak on Goodreads
Try instead – take a look at my review of Val McDermid’s Out of Bounds