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The Torment of Others

by Val McDermid (HarperCollins, 2004)

That I’ve read Val McDermid’s The Torment of Others twice is a sterling testimony to my nerves. This is because it’s a horrifying story featuring stomach-churning violence and messed-up minds, brought together in an edge-of-your-seat package by a veteran author.

The Torment of Others reunites cop Carol Jordan and clinical psychologist Tony Hill in an impossible quest. A deranged serial killer is going after prostitutes in the fictional English town of Bradfield, but here’s the twist—his signature is identical to a spate of killings for which a man has already been convicted. The case against Derek Tyler was cut and dried, and signed with unshakeable forensic evidence.

So, a copycat killer? Tony Hill, a consultant with the Major Incident Team (MIT) as a profiler, begs to differ, and comes up with an alternative that is as outlandish as it is disturbing. But as all other leads close down, Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan and her MIT are left with no option but to put together a dangerous undercover operation to smoke out the truth.

The MIT, whose mandate is to look at serious crimes and also bring in a new perspective on unsolved case, are meanwhile lumped with another case regarding a couple of missing boys. Parallel cases is a fairly common formula in this genre of fiction, and there are no prizes for guessing that the two will link up later. While the author can’t be faulted for dancing adeptly between the two cases, the second story proves to be more of a distraction than adding to the overall suspense and atmosphere of the book. As for what fresh hell lies in the Hill–Jordan relationship, well, the question hovers in the background like an irritating chaperone.

Arguably, Tony Hill and Carol Jordan love each other, but theirs is a complex and twisty relationship. I won’t give away any spoilers except to say that their happiness and possibility of being together is marred by personal demons. (Readers are strongly advised to read their story in chronological order; The Torment of Others is the fourth in the series.) Jordan returns to regular police work after a ghastly undercover experience in Europe that left her violated and her trust in her peers shaken (refer to the previous book, The Last Temptation). Hill, meanwhile, continues to ‘pass for human’, keenly aware of how much his messed-up childhood could well have resulted in his being on the side of the deviant minds that he instead studies and profiles.

Hill and Jordan’s will-they-won’t-they jig continues to both hook and frustrate readers, though I personally tend towards frustration. On the other hand, this messed-up relationship truly has no match in fiction, which makes it fascinating. It has been likened to the ‘unconsummated mating dance performed by Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in the first two seasons of Moonlighting‘ (Bookreporter.com), but is nowhere as tantalising as that. In fact, it really comes across as rather pathetic sometimes. An alternately needy and dead-end relationship where things are too complicated for the people in question to ever come together; yet there is trust and affection and respect, things which usually form the bedrock of the most lasting bonds.

McDermid does not shy away from graphic descriptions of violence—and the controversy that it courts as a result. Especially the infamous incident when fellow Scots crime writer Ian Rankin insinuated that it was ‘bloodthirsty lesbians’ who were churning out the most graphic novels. In an interview to The Times in September 2012, McDermid spoke about her disgust at being labelled ‘the poster girl for violence’. ‘If I wasn’t a lesbian, it would be something else, particularly where women are concerned,’ she said. ‘It is still a male-dominated society and I think there are still a lot of guys who are quite frightened of women.’ (The full text can be obtained from Val McDermid’s website.)

To cut to the chase, McDermid tells it like it is. So unless you have a strong stomach, you’re best advised to stay away from the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books. There is nothing in The Torment of Others that will ever make you feel good. Apart, that is, from enjoying a good story. It is set in the seedier sites of Bradfield, where the most marginalised of society roam and where the value of a life is considerably lower. But if its damp and grey alleys filled with shady and seamy activities lull you into thinking that’s where the sick minds come from, you could be in for a nasty shock.

The Torment of Others is best not read on a dark and rainy night when one is alone at home.

RATING: 8/10

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