Fourteen years after the first, this is the sixth in the highly successful series fronted by clinical psychologist and criminal profiler Dr Tony Hill alongside his friend DCI Carol Jordan, and accordingly it is the sixth to take its title from an extract of a T.S. Eliot poem, thereby having little more than an ambiguous relevance to the story itself. In summary, a serial killer in the fictitious Yorkshire city of Bradfield is being pursued, one who targets teenagers after grooming them on-line. Broadly speaking it is a tale that sticks fairly rigidly to procedural police teamwork but by-passes the traditional forensic elements, so as usual there is a minimum of slicing and dicing in the morgue a la Gerritsen, Reichs or Cornwell moulds. Instead the development of the characters in Carol Jordan's hand-picked team of detectives plays a key role, together with their long-term consultant and trusted colleague Dr Hill.
As a story and plot, Fever of the Bone feels like a combination of a throwback to proven methods from earlier and successful Hill-Jordan novels combined with some conspicuous details that suggest that the author has made a conscious attempt to rejuvenate the brand with some teen-prose and text-speak that should make the finished product feel more up-to-date. Anyone new to McDermid won't notice this of course, but for the many fans with bulging McDermid bookcases who will be loyally buying this latest offering, a 'whatever' here and an 'innit' there might seem just slightly out of kilter to what has gone before, and while teenagers do use such vocabulary of course, the author herself seems to have wandered - knowingly and deliberately - into a territory that has the potential to draw ridicule from those that are familiar with her previous twenty-two novels. It is, however, a return to safe ground after the previous novel which was perhaps too ambitious in capitalising on the threat of terrorist bombs (in Yorkshire!) and dabbling in the world of professional football. In the latest novel there are also some real-life events that, unusually for Val McDermid, serve to 'time-stamp' the tale, by such mentionings of a recession, the property price slump, Facebook and one or two other things that in years to come will make this stand out as a story set in 2007/08 or very close to it. It's nitpicking, to be fair, but noticeable nonetheless. Overall the prose is excellent and as intelligent as one would expect from one of Britain's front-runners in crime fiction, after more than two decades of writing.
Tony Hill and Carol Jordan take centre stage as fans would hope, although they are separated for a considerable period, partly because Tony is researching the father he never knew. Tony and Carol's relationship has almost certainly been the cornerstone of this series' popularity, but it has to be said that something needs to change after fourteen years of will-they-won't-they. But there are several other characters who feature prominently, not least long-term ally DC Paula McIntyre, whose timid foray into a lesbian relationship is authentic and relevant, and the very ambitious DC Sam Evans, who treads a fine line between team player and maverick but whose character, like Paula's, is interestingly and carefully developed in this latest instalment. Somewhat more peripheral to this quartet but still worthy of the reader's attention include ICT specialist Stacey Chen, a couple of senior officers from a West Mercia police force and an egocentric new Chief Constable (replacing the now retired John Brandon) who attempts to exert his influence on Carol's highly-rated MIT by threatening disbandment due to budget pressures from above. There's also a small part for Fiona Cameron, who fans will remember as leading character in Killing the Shadows
It's hard to deny that this is a carefully woven story with appealing characters, professionally written by a woman who has managed to stay at the top of her game for an unusually long time. Well - almost. I still regard The Mermaids Singing
as the best of this sextet; it held more thrills, more suspense and more mysteries to unravel than this one. So when compared with McDermid's best novels - not least her masterpiece A Place of Execution
(a standalone) - Fever of the Bone is unlikely to be regarded as the best this author has produced, but when compared to what's out there in the crime fiction marketplace in 2009 it stands up very well indeed. Anyone reading this and liking it can be assured that there are treasures to be found in Val's back-catalogue, and quite a few at that. A very good novel, then, despite its slightly clipped conclusion, and one that any crime fiction aficionado can buy with confidence. It is unlikely to disappoint.