“The Mermaids Singing” by Val McDermid

McDermid, Val. The Mermaids Singing (1995)  
Audiobook by Dreamscape Media (2011), narrated by Graham Roberts

Note: This novel contains graphic descriptions of torture and sexual violence.

The bodies of four men, brutally tortured and murdered, have been found in the fictional town of Bradfield, England. Police have no leads in the case and have brought in forensic psychologist Dr. Tony Hill to profile the killer. Hill’s previous work with criminals consisted of interviews after they had been captured and imprisoned, but now he must use that training to get inside the head of a killer still at large to figure out his next move. Many on the police force scoff at the ability of a profiler to help catch a criminal, but Hill finds a kindred spirit in deputy inspector Carol Jordan, his assigned police liaison.

Dr. Tony Hill exemplifies the archetype of the wounded healer, someone whose own illness has honed the skill to help others. His psychological and sexual demons enable him to imagine the killer’s motivations and twisted logic. Hill’s approach to understanding the killer is to try to enter the killer’s mind. To help him do this, he gives the killer a nickname, Handy Andy, and questions and converses with Handy Andy while trying to figure out how to forestall Andy’s next move and thereby prevent another murder. Hill recognizes his own kinship with Andy, admitting at one point that capturing the killer is how he avoids becoming the killer.

This novel introduces Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. Jordan here serves as a moderating force in Hill’s intense psychological inquiry. She is open to his profiling process, but she brings a police investigator’s logic, experience, and expertise to the task. Their conversations provide relief necessary to prevent Hill from being overwhelmed by the killer’s psyche.

Interspersed throughout the novel are excerpts from the killer’s electronic diary that explain how he learns to build various implements of torture for use on his victims. Early passages are chillingly dispassionate as the killer discusses how he learned about ancient instruments of torture and how he located a place in which to create his own torture chamber. But as the novel progresses, these passages become increasingly violent and vituperative as he rants about imagined slights that his victims have committed against him and the brutal punishments that they therefore deserve. 

As Tony Hill and the police desperately work to discover the killer’s identity, the reader realizes that this psychopath won’t stop until he’s caught. This realization ratchets up the tension as the novel approaches its climax, in which Tony Hill learns that coming face to face with such evil must exact a price. The novel’s graphic descriptions are necessary to emphasize the extreme psychopathology that Hill confronts in Handy Andy. 

Published in 1995, The Mermaids Singing won that year’s Gold Dagger Award for the best British crime novel of the year. 

The late Graham Roberts narrates the audiobook. The mockingly exaggerated voice he uses for the diary passages effectively shapes the reader’s antipathy toward the character responsible for these reprehensible actions.

This is a slightly altered version of a review that originally appeared on Metapsychology Online Reviews.

I received a review copy of this audiobook from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

© 2012 by Mary Daniels Brown

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