Book Review: How the Dead Speak — Val McDermid

Carol Jordan and Tony Hill have been through a lot in their eleven books together, and they each know that they wilt outside of each other’s presence. In this latest instalment, Val McDermid finally allows Carol to process the extreme PTSD that has cropped up over two and a half decades worth of adventures and, as these things go, How The Dead Speak is a progress novel in what has become an increasingly stop-start pattern for these characters.

After more than thirty skeletons are uncovered at the site of a former convent, the new Major Incidents Team must investigate against the backdrop of a famously tight-lipped Catholic church and the suspiciously maintained grounds next door. DI Paula McIntyre must investigate without the assistance of old standbys Carol Jordan and Tony Hill, who are respectively looking into wrongful convictions and criminal literacy.

How the Dead Speak is one of McDermid’s novels where the mystery is not a mystery: we are introduced to the killer immediately, and his motivations aren’t far behind. It would be nice to spend more time with him, but McDermid makes it clear that he’s a wily one who doesn’t need to kill while the heat is on – a departure from the generally held belief that a serial killer escalates his crimes and commits them closer together as the urge grows stronger.
It’s a solid enough crime but the resolution of the case is abrupt, and more development of the killer’s psyche would have been welcomed. Paula can carry this material herself, and she has to: Tony and Carol have their own personal soap operas to attend to.

It’s not exactly a secret that Carol’s heavy alcoholism had become tedious as the series continued and nothing was done about it; in forcing Carol’s hand, McDermid has brought new life to the character, although her B plot shows considerably poor judgment on her part. Carol’s A game is interesting and dovetails nicely with the main plot without smacking too much of coincidence.

Tony, on the other hand, is more of a guest star. Far be it from this reader to break the omerta imposed at the end of the previous novel, but Tony is on the equivalent of gardening leave, and his contributions are near negligible. McDermid is waiting out the clock, and once again the reader is forced to wonder “is Tony Hill’s work any good?” whenever they read an excerpt from his research.

How the Dead Speak does not contain any cul-de-sacs that go nowhere like Insidious Intent; we know that, of all the corpses that are overturned in these pages, not all of them will receive justice. We are inured to it, because that’s the way institutions work. This is not top shelf McDermid, but nor is she slumming. The way that the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series is structured is that she subjects one or both of them (admittedly, usually Carol) to an earth-shattering event, and then spends a book or two on their recovery. How the Dead Speak is a recovery book, and one that speaks to something good going ahead. 

Long term Tony Hill and Carol Jordan fans who threw Insidious Intentaway in disgust should look out for How the Dead Speak.. It may not completely restore one’s faith in the franchise. By design this is an ensemble piece where the ensemble aren’t allowed to work as a team, but it’s easy to see that, once again, they’re crawling slowly towards the optimal scenario.

An ARC of How The Dead Speak was provided via Netgalley and Grove Atlantic. It is due for publication in the US on December 3, but for Australian and European release on August 22.

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