"The Mermaids Singing"(1995), a British mystery, was the first of Scottish author Val McDermid's "Wire in The Blood" mystery series, and quite a stir it made, too. McDermid, who is now a prize-winning, best-selling author of 22 novels, is, of course, a leading exponent of the "tartan noir," school of mystery-writing: the specifically Scottish, bloody-minded, tough but slyly humorous approach to a thriller, lightened by the mordant wit for which the Scots are known. As does the entire "Wire" series, "Mermaids" deals with the psychological profiling and stalking of serial killers. It introduces us to, and stars, Dr. Tony Hill, forensic psychologist and criminal profiler; also introduces us to Detective Inspector Carol Jordan, with whom he works. It's a police procedural and rather a suspense/thriller. Her "Wire" series is now, of course, the basis for a popular ITV television series of the same name, Wire in the Blood: Series 1 and 2 (5 Disc Box Set) [DVD] [2002
], starring the toothsome Robson Green as Dr. Tony Hill.
McDermid jumped to worldwide fame and popularity on the heels of her A Place of Execution
, which was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel, won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She was born and raised in a Scottish mining town not far from Edinburgh, north of the Firth of Forth; won a scholarship to the ancient, highly-prestigious Oxford University,where she read English; and worked for sixteen years as a journalist in Manchester, where she still resides.
Despite her current English residence, she must be considered, along with Ian Rankin and Denise Mina, one of the leading lights of the Scottish school of mystery writing, "Tartan noir." This particular novel, as several others of hers, utilizes that technique so popular in the 1990's, of interspersing supposed "real" information, allegedly taken from books, newspapers, diaries and journals, through the text, and it really doesn't work well for the writer, or for me, it just slows things down every time.
The book is set in the author's fictional Bradfield, which looks a lot like Manchester when it's at home. Authorities have become aware that a sadistic sexual serial killer is torturing and murdering men possibly members of the city's gay community: the powers that be have reluctantly ventured to bring Dr. Tony Hill in on the chase. In the writing of the book, McDermid has borrowed a fairly significant idea from that fountainhead of all serial killer books, Silence of the Lambs
, but the author makes good use of it, and pretty much makes it her own. Her "Mermaids" is solidly constructed, well-plotted, and well-written, but be in no doubt: it's gory and violent: only you can know your taste in those matters.
The author opens her narrative in Tuscany, where her killer is on vacation. The unidentified killer has dutifully toured around Florence, and finally gets to go to nearby San Gimignano, which makes some lovely chianti, and is known in the tourist trade as the medieval Manhattan, because the hostile families that lived there erected more than 100 towers to protect themselves from each other. In that walled city the killer finds the true object of the vacation, the "Museo Criminologico," a collection of instruments of torture. Of course, I am an insane, crazed mystery fan, and not that long ago followed McDermid's killer, to Tuscany, Florence, San Gimignano. Loved the ice cream the latter city had to offer, but didn't seem to notice said museum. However, I found it in Florence; stood hesitating in front of it for fifteen minutes, in the pouring rain that washed out that vacation, and never went in. The fellow who's now my husband would have none of it. As I said, only you can know your feelings about these matters.