Although her latest novel has some brutal scenes perpetuated by a misogynistic serial killer, because this is Val McDermid, she has license to go where few crime writers dare, lacing her tale with graphic torture scenes and gore. While some readers will undoubtedly be disturbed by this latest Tony Hill and Carol Jordan outing, most of her fans will admire Val for continuing to break borders and uncovering such intense and taboo issues as sexual torture and cruelty towards women.
Picking up several months after events of The Retribution stunned Tony and Carol into a state of isolation, Carol’s beloved Major Incident Crime Unit is a thing of the past. Carol herself has resigned in a fug of grief and animosity. Most of her anger is directed at Tony, whom she blames for not doing more to protect her brother Michael from the clutches of evil serial killer Jacko Vance.
It is left to DC Paula Mcintyre to enter the twisted mind of a criminal and become the new profiler psychiatrist of sorts as she investigates a brutal crime. A Polish woman called Nadia has been abducted and murdered out of the blue. The crime is horrific, involving a form of torture that seems patterned on deviant behavior. Nadia’s face has been battered to a bloody pulp to the point where she’s unrecognizable. Then there is another disappearance, a single mother whose teenage son is unable to disguise his obvious anxiety about her whereabouts to Paula. Even as he pleads with Paula and her partner, Elinor, to find her, McDermid ratchets up the tension by turning her focus to Carol, who now lives in Michael’s barn on the isolated West Yorkshire moors.
Although the novel is heavy on violence, McDermid unfolds a great study on human nature and the twisted individuals living on the fringes of society. The author frames the murders around the shattered relationship between Carol and Tony. With the “dream over,” Carol’s personal life is as much a victim of a brutal killer as her professional life. She can’t get beyond the death of her brother, murdered by a killer Tony failed to catch soon enough. Forced to undergo a period of serious self-examination, and angry at Tony, Carol has cut herself adrift from everything she knows and loves.
There is no black and white in Cross and Burn, only blood-tinged shades of gray. While Paula refuses to be put in “the little woman box” by her new boss, the ballsy DCI Fielding who is trying to run an investigation amid numerous departmental cuts and redundancies, a stone-cold killer is looking for victims who fit his type. Stalking the mean streets of Bradford, his modus speaks of a contempt that chills Paula’s heart. It as if the killer wants to deny his victims everything that made them who they are: a wrecked face, a ruined body, and not even any use for sex, “it’s as if he’s rendering them utterly worthless.”
As this tense novel unfurls, Paula, Fielding, Carol, and Tony form a tight assemblage of accidents just waiting to explode—from the DNA analysis which Fielding is convinced will lead to the killer, to Tony’s surprising uncovering of CCTV footage, to two apparently blameless women who disappear in a flash of anger. We see Carol give a final benediction to Paula, who can still perhaps manage to do what she cannot. While Carol must try to rediscover her capable skills as an investigator, Tony finds himself squeezed by a hotshot lawyer and a hostile Fielding. Insulted, threatened and framed, Tony is plunged into the center of a case with competing legal and political interests.
That Paula would turn to Tony to help solve the crimes is not surprising given that deep-down Tony aches to get back into Carol’s good books. Largely taking center stage in this outing, Paula is on trial, too, with her loyalty to the new boss under fire. Her fidelity to the “old regime” threatens to undermine Fielding’s determination to get a quick and spectacular resolution to the case. Throw in the interminable bleakness of the Yorkshire moors, a place where terrible things can go unnoticed (“a potential body dump, and the landfill of loss“), and you have a tale that begins with lots of blood and snowballs into a chaotic and tense finale leaving little doubt about McDermid’s expertise as a grisly and iconic crime writer.