The Demons within... and the Monsters without
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche
Those ominous (if somewhat cryptic) words are most often seen as a kind of warning, cautioning us to guard ourselves against the dangers of lingering too long in the presence of evil lest it rub off, infecting us with its insidious malevolence.
Sage advice, to be sure. But, what happens to someone who’s already been exposed to more than a taste of genuine evil... is that person more, or less, apt to become a monster, in turn?
That question is at the core of much-lauded British crime author Val McDermid’s latest tour de force, The Retribution.
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It’s the beginning of the end for Bradfield PD’s special murder squad, long helmed by the determined Carol Jordan and manned by her elite group of detectives. Despite being able to boast of an enviable success rate, intradepartmental politics have effectively pulled the plug on her unit, and it’s about to be disbanded and reassigned.
Rather than cleaning out their desks with a sad little whimper, though, her team would like nothing more than the chance to go out with a bang, thumbing their noses at the higher-ups who made the foolhardy decision. And, it appears they might be able to do just that, when a clue in the murder of the third prostitute over the last couple of weeks makes it clear they have a serial killer on their hands.
There’s one small problem, though. Carol’s superior has forbidden her from seeking out her go-to profiler, long-time acquaintance/friend, clinical psychologist Dr. Tony Hill, who--for all his oddities, eccentricities, and utter lack of people skills--is a spot-on judge of the criminal mind. No matter that Tony repeatedly offers his help pro bono, either; Carol pointblank refuses to accept it, asserting that he is a professional and should rightfully be paid for his services.
Enter Carol’s top detective, Paula, who goes behind her boss’s back for the sake of the case and enlists the doctor’s help, anyway. Suddenly, the old team is back together one last time. Good thing, too, because their killer is definitely escalating, leaving none of Bradfield’s female sex workers safe.
Things have also been changing (at a glacier’s pace) on a more personal level... but just as Tony and Carol are finally at the point where they’re able to contemplate the next move (literally, in this case, as the specter of moving in together--as housemates--approaches), a case from the past comes back to rip their fragile hopes, plans, and dreams to shreds. One of the most sadistic and brutal killers they’ve ever put away engineers an unbelievable escape from prison... leaving no one, anywhere, safe.
Jacko Vance, the handsome, charismatic former Olympian and popular TV personality--who, it turned out, was also a sick and twisted sociopath who got off on murdering teenage girls in his spare time--has been incarcerated for the past decade. Despite occasional reports from the prison’s psychologist of his supposed rehabilitation, however, Jacko actually spent his time behind bars doing everything but feeling remorse; he was quietly hatching--and patiently enacting--an elaborate plot to break out.
Once free, Jacko is determined to exact his full measure of revenge on everyone who had a hand in putting him away before he pulls a disappearing act. He wants retribution... and the members of the not-quite-defunct special murder team--particularly Carol and Tony--are at the very top of his to-do list.
The duo have long hunted and studied monsters while doing plenty of battle with their own personal demons, but they’re about to go head-on with the unspeakable embodiment of their worst nightmares. What emerges from such a clash can only be damaged, at best... or utterly and completely broken, at worst.
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Val McDermid holds a place on my shortlist of must-read-immediately authors; from the first, I’ve been captivated by her Carol Jordan/Tony Hill stories and her stand-alones.
The Retribution is no exception. It’s as full of adrenaline-fueled action, heart-stopping fear, and mind-bending twists as anyone could hope for from a crime thriller. But, what really sets McDermid apart for me is how masterfully she’s able to illustrate that it is the individual’s mind in which all of the really important action--the thought processes, rationalizations, mental arguments, soul-searching, and internal monologues which drive everything else--take place... and the terrifying realization that it is also the one area to which no one else can ever truly be privy.
McDermid’s characters aren’t touchy-feely sorts; rather, they’re prickly and temperamental, the type of people whose life experiences have honed their edges into sharpness rather than wearing them down and leaving them dull. Carol and Tony have always been prime examples, but never more so than here, when everything in their lives--down to who they are, the tragedies and experiences which helped to shape their personalities, what they believe in, and what they hold dear--is in danger of being tested, perverted, and possibly lost forever. This case--visceral and brutally-emotional-- is the one which will determine more than any other the paths, together and separate, the rest of their lives will take.
I wouldn’t recommend reading The Retribution if you haven’t followed the Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series; too much of the emotional impact of seeing what they--as well as other members of the team, who by now feel like friends--go through, would be lost. Instead, if you’ve not read these compelling, intelligent books before, start at the beginning. But, if you’re a long-time fan like me, pick up The Retribution as soon as you can get your hands on it. It’s powerful stuff.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 mousies