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'Insidious Intent' shows Val McDermid deserves her Queen of Crime crown

Val McDermid’s first crime novel, “Report for Murder,” was published in 1987 while the Scottish native worked in as Northern bureau chief for a Sunday tabloid. In the three decades that followed, McDermid penned more than thirty other novels spanning four crime series as well as half a dozen stand-alone novels, several short story collections and nonfiction books on forensics and private investigators. McDermid’s body of work has earned her the nickname “Queen of Crime” in the British press, a title bestowed, in earlier times, on Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and, more recently, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. At her best, McDermid has an agile, curious mind, adept at plumbing the psyches of diverse characters with insight and sensitivity, and an ability to make forensic science and technology accessible, even as she tips her hat to the techniques and plot devices of an earlier era.

“Insidious Intent,” the tenth to feature psychologist Tony Hill and Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan, opens on an average woman, sitting alone at a wedding reception: “If Kathryn McCormick had known she had less than three weeks to live, she might have made more of an effort to enjoy Suzanne’s wedding.” An attention-grabbing line, it also echoes other famous openings: P.D. James’ “A Certain Justice,” which foreshadowed first victim's murder before killing her off a third of the way into the book, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ novella “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” (“On the day they were going to kill him, Satiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.”) McDermid limns the essence of Kathryn’s life before introducing her murderer, who’s crashed the wedding by pretending to know the groom. This audacious opening plays to McDermid’s strengths at writing multiple points of view, which she expertly uses to tell this twisted tale through the eyes of the novel’s victims, the perpetrator and the Yorkshire crime team who hunt him.

Chief among the crime fighters are Dr. Hill, the talented yet socially awkward criminal profiler and Detective Chief Inspector Jordan, the once and future detective. Tony and Carol have worked together for more than twenty years and have had as many disagreements and fallings-out as lovers, which they technically are not. But their bond is strong enough for Tony to be living at Carol’s house to support her as she struggles with her guilt over the brutal deaths of her brother and sister-in-law at the hands of a multiple murderer she was pursuing — and a sobriety Tony coerces her into after she’s been charged with a DUI. Her troubles aside, for Carol work is an essential part of her identity: “To deliver criminals to judgment had always fulfilled her. That sense of restoring some kind of balance in the world also gave balance to her life.” So when Chief Constable John Brandon, her former boss, comes calling, she’s unable to resist his offer, with its potential to heal her mind, body and spirit.

Brandon wants Carol to head up the newly-created Regional Major Incident Team — or ReMIT — assembled to “scoop up all the sudden violent deaths, the most vicious sexual assaults and the sickening child abductions from six separate police forces.” To pave the way, Brandon engineers the dismissal of Carol’s DUI arrest, along with those of several other offenders, due to a supposedly faulty breathalyzer. While the dismissal enables her to return to the work she loves, Brandon’s action proves to be another source of guilt for Carol as well as the catalyst for the snooping of Penny Burgess, a local investigative reporter, intent on unmasking Carol as a drunk whose circumvention of justice led to another of the drivers whose case was dismissed to drive drunk again, killing several people in the process.

Carol’s personal struggles are overshadowed by the Wedding Killer, as Tony dubs him, who, along with his victims, commands center stage in this gripping novel. The killer’s lack of connection to his growing list of victims (a plot device used by Agatha Christie in “The ABC Murders”) and skill at avoiding leaving any forensic evidence baffles the ReMIT detectives and allows some lulls in the investigation which are filled by the team’s personal and professional concerns.

Readers familiar to the series will recognize Detective Sergeant Paula McIntyre, Detective Constable Stacey Chen and Detective Chief Inspector Kevin Matthews, all of whom are provided with enough backstory and current problems to fully engage new readers. Most notably, secondary plots involving a copper bent on revenge on Carol and a cyberbullying crisis involving Torin, Paula and partner Elinor's teenage ward who’s been living with them after the murder of his mother, brings Chen to the forefront and highlights her ability to plumb the Internet and darknet with equal and formidable skill.

Ultimately, the lack of progress on the Wedding Killer case causes the powers that be to lose faith in Carol and her team, and the veteran detective loses faith in herself. As Carol spirals downward, consumed by guilt and self-doubt, Tony must grapple with his own barely-expressed feelings for the woman who has been his rock as much as he is hers.

Here McDermid is at her finest, drawing on the colleagues’ personal and professional history to ratchet up the tension, which builds to a breaking point and propels the final scenes.

While the construction of the novel and its genuinely shocking conclusion preclude revealing any more of the plot, “Insidious Intent” is a bold gamble that has the potential to shake long-cherished characters from their emotional complacency and advance the series into uncharted territory, even as it sends readers back to the text like viewers returning to the films “The Sixth Sense” and “The Crying Game” to figure out what clues they missed along the way.

Christie, James and the other Queens of Crime would be properly chuffed.

Woods is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, an editor and author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.

Insidious Intent

Val McDermid

Atlantic Monthly Press: 400 pp., $26

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