With apologies to anyone who is reading this as a duplicative review, I am going to review all four of Val McDermid's Dr. Tony Hill/Carol Jordan novels in one place and copy the reviews individually.
I've now read seven of McDermid's books. She's not a great writer but she's a fabulous storyteller and her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan mysteries are the best of the bunch. The first two books aren't written terribly well, but the writing gets better as the series goes on. You may know these characters from the BBC series "Wire in the Blood" starring Robson Green. As an aside, while I generally find film and television adaptations to be far less satisfying than the source material on which they are based, the BBC series is really an exception. While the books have some detail that doesn't make it to the t.v. series, the television program really brings the characters to life and improves on the writing while staying true to the novels, although only the fourth book's plot actually made it to the screen.
As noted by some other reviewers, these books are not for the squeamish. McDermid doesn't pull any punches in writing about vicious psychopaths who commit sex crimes and the books may well be disturbing to many. The second book in particular (more below) actually gave me nightmares. McDermid, however, really gets into the heads of her twisted antagonists and she seems to have done a tremendous amount of research. Most importantly, both Dr. Hill, a clinical psychologist who consults with the police as a profiler, and Carol Jordan, the police officer with whom he works most closely, always feel like real people with investigative abilities and compassion that are easy to admire and foibles that are easy to relate to. They have serious difficulties in forging personal relationships which makes their relationship all the more poignant. Each book focuses on two stories -- a main investigation involving a psychopath and a secondary case that is generally no less compelling, while also following the relationship that develops between the two protagonists. If you've never read any of the books in this series, I would recommend taking them in order. The fourth book is the best, the third the worst, but it's worth reading them in order for the character development (although you could easily skip the third). If you really think you only want to read one, or aren't sure and don't care about spolers, just go straight to the last one. Some people who have read the entire series have found the fourth book repetitive, but it's the one that really works on all levels. Overall, the series gets 4 stars, but here are my individual assessments:
SPOILER FREE REVIEWS
1. The Mermaids Singing - 4 stars
The first of the series is really the only one that delves in any great detail into the personal lives of Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, who come together to investigate the brutal torture and slayings of four men in northern England. McDermid's Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books all deal with issues of sexual identity, but this one does is particularly focused on that as the police suspect a gay man of killing heterosexual men. McDermid shares the thoughts of the killer as well as those of Dr. Hill, who relates all too well to the motivations of the subjects he is asked to profile. The writing in this book is kind of clunky, but the insights of the author into how and why someone sets out to cause maximum pain and humiliation still make it a riveting, if disturbing, read.
2. The Wire in the Blood -- 4 stars
In this second book in the series, teenaged girls are being abducted and brutally raped and tortured to death. We are introduced to an extremely smooth and charismatic character, Jacko Vance, a television celebrity and former star athlete, that Dr. Hill and Carol Jordan called upon to investigate. This is the hardest of the series to read, probably because the killer's victims are all extremely young, naive and female, with no chance whatsoever of fighting back. This book deals with charisma and celebrity as well as sexual deviance and although the writing is still somewhat awkward, it's generally a more compelling novel than the Mermaids Singing.
3. The Last Temptation -- 3 stars
This is the weakest book in the series. On the plus side, McDermid decides to branch out from northern England and take the reader into continental Europe, particularly Germany, where Carol Jordan has gone as an undercover operative to investigate a drug dealer/slave trader. Tony Hill is also in Europe, helping the police solve a series of murders in which psychologists are the victims. McDermid brings to light some of the darker deeds of the Nazis that are generally not known and discussed and for this she should be commended. The writing also starts to improve with this book and the secondary protagonists, two female, European police officers who develop a long-term relationship with each other, are the best of any of the books. There are some serious problems with the novel, however, that make it the weakest of the bunch. First of all, in the other books McDermid is writing about the North of England, which she clearly knows like the back of her hand. The locale in the other books is really the third character after Tony Hill and Carol Jordan. The European locations never quite come to life in the same way. But the biggest problem with The Last Temptation is that McDermid tries too hard to force a particular ending. In order to get where she wants to go, she has to have Carol Jordan do something completely out of character and, frankly, she doesn't do a good job of convincing us of the reason. The whole book feels a bit contrived. Kudos to McDermid for trying something different instead of just writing variations on a theme, but the theme is one she does really well and this effort is a bit disappointing.
4. The Torment of Others -- 5 stars
There's a reason this made the best adaptation of McDermid's books for the BBC series "Wire in the Blood." By this point, McDermid had started to write really well, and she'd really gotten the hang of tying the two story lines together. In the main story, someone is killing prostitutes with the m.o. used by a man currently in an insane asylum. How does the killer know exactly what the prior murderer did? The mystery is more satisfying than that of the prior novels and the sub-plot, involving kidnapped boys, also intrigues. There's not much to learn at this point about Dr. Hill, but while the third book didn't entirely work, the aftereffects of that novel's events on Carol Jordan are all too real and bring the characters' relationship to a new level.
If books on criminal profiling and psychological forensics are your thing, you'll probably really enjoy McDermid's work. If someone has recommended her writing to you and the Dr. Hill/Carol Jordan mysteries sound like they are too gruesome, check out the Grave Tattoo, which is a neat, little literary mystery.