The charismatic sportsman/TV celebrity turned serial killer in Val McDermid’s classic The Wire in the Blood, Jacko Vance, is back in her 25th novel.
Settle down and be prepared for a one-sitting read for this one. The book opens in rapid succession with multiple revelations and never lets you out of its grip until it drops you like a wrung-out rag just over 400 pages later.
DCI Carol Jordan and her team are about to go their separate ways, with her looking to transfer from Bradfield to West Mercia. Long time Murder Investigation Team botherer and reporter with the Evening Sentinel Times, Penny Burgess, contacts Dr. Tony Hill with her suspicions that there is a serial killer at large, with three sex workers killed and left with the word ‘mine’ tattooed on their wrists. It’s a case that DS Reekie decides should also be brought to the attention of DCI Carol Jordan as one last ‘special’ case for her and her team while she works her notice.
With all this going on in Bradfield, Jacko Vance is busy at HMP Oakworth, planning the most ingenious of escapes. Once on the outside he begins an incredible game of cat and mouse with constant identity changes, aided by outside help, to keep the police on their toes as he begins to plot and execute acts of pure vengeance on those responsible for his imprisonment.
No-one is safe from his plans, with all of Jordan’s team at risk and her and Tony Hill at the very top of his list for vendetta. This is revenge on an epic scale with some quite breathtaking events taking place as Vance exacts murderous actions towards the team and those closest to them. The plotting is so well constructed that it feels like you are reading in real time, sitting right beside the main characters as they rush from one crime scene to the next. The characters we have grown to know so well through the books and the television adaptations are totally exposed and at risk here, creating real anxiety and an edge-of-the-seat experience for the reader.
The sex-worker serial killer plot does not get short shrift, however, with a great story running with Jordan’s usual team alongside the Jacko Vance events and the use of a television show-inspired series of murders is a nice touch. I almost believed that Channel 5 did once screen Maze Man and that the novelist whose book it was based on was real too (yes, I have googled to check as Val had me convinced).
For all of the full-throttle action and peril in The Retribution I’d go so far as to say this has been my favourite Val McDermid book to date – no mean feat with 24 others to compare it to. And, for the unpredictability of the story, the surprises and shocks along the way, and the fact that no one escapes this one without taking some damage (including the reader), it’s also one of my top reads so far this year.
A masterclass in how great crime fiction can, and should, be.