- The Washington Times - Friday, October 15, 2010

FEVER OF THE BONE
By Val McDermid
Harper, $14.99, 512 pages

TRAIL OF BLOOD
By Lisa Black
Morrow, $24.99, 400 pages

The exploration of the darker reaches of the human mind has long been a speciality of author Val McDermid and she has outdone herself in this strange maze of a psychological thriller.

Ms. McDermid has always delved into the psychology of the serial killer yet this book, “Fever of the Bone,” is different because of the bizarre nature of the solution to the mystery. The plot has all the trademarks of a serial killer mystery, the grief and horror of parents whose child has been butchered and the difficulty posed by the fact that there are no recognizable links between the victims except messages in “textspeak” with an anonymous stalker on a wide- ranging Internet site.

The killing and mutilation of several teenagers is gruesome enough yet what is more difficult for the investigators to analyze is the lack of sexual savagery in most of the cases, suggesting an unusual indifference on the part of the killer. Oddly, therein lies the key to the killings.

This is one of the more complex of the author’s series featuring criminal profiler Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan who have an unusual yet fulfilling partnership professionally and personally. In a fascinating side plot, the author uses that partnership to probe and strip away Hill’s psychological demons while retaining him as a dominant figure on the scene.

As Jordan struggles with the harassment of a new chief constable lacking in understanding of criminal profile work, and jealous of Hill’s skills, the author segues into revelations about the profiler’s warped and lonely childhood and his psychologically vicious mother. Her account of Hill’s painful effort to find in death the father he never knew in life is touching, especially his discovery of a home he never knew and a man he desperately wanted to know.

The resolution of a personal mystery that has tortured him all his life allows Hill to see a world unclouded by the darkness and pain of a wounded childhood and makes possible a personal life that is not scarred by the past. It also raises the possibility that Carol Jordan may be part of that life as she never has before.

Ms. McDermid writes with sensitivity of the relationship between Jordan and Hill, which has barely survived its problems and presumably has a long way to go before it can become either relaxed or comfortable. She also has obvious knowledge of the kind of rivalries that can bedevil competing police districts, and the problems that accompany a new chief constable burdened by a pomposity that exceeds his efficiency.

Most important, she demonstrates her considerable skill at manipulating and controlling an intricate plot even with a conclusion that rather stretches credibility. But the book is so well done, it doesn’t matter.

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The murderer known as the Torso Killer terrorized the city of Cleveland 75 years ago during the Great Depression, decapitating and dismembering more than a dozen victims. And he was never caught, which is the hook used by Lisa Black to link the gruesome past with a suddenly gory present.

The author uses forensic scientist Theresa MacLean, child of a family steeped in police work, as her investigator in this latter-day explosion of killings that begin with the discovery of a long dead body with its head between its feet, found in a sealed room in an abandoned building. There is not much left in the way of forensic clues but MacLean’s task is made easier by the discovery of another corpse, recently slain, in a scene that is reminiscent of the style of the Torso Killer.

MacLean finds herself in a situation where she is trying to prevent the repetition of criminal history, working with the police at her own peril as they track down a madman.

Ms. Black is a former forensic scientist for the Cleveland coroner’s office and a latent fingerprint examiner in Florida and her experience shows. The book is as much a trail of forensic examinations as of gore, and as the identity of the killer becomes more evident, the scientific details of forensic science proliferate to an almost incomprehensible degree.

The book’s strength lies in its vivid recapitulation of the days of the Depression as seen through the eyes of James Miller, a young police officer who becomes a victim of the killer. It is Miller whose desiccated body is discovered in the sealed room as the 21st-century slew of murders begins, and Ms. Black’s account of his short and stressful life in Cleveland of 1935 is well done.

Especially effective is her recounting of an emotional vacuum where accepting perks could become a matter of financial necessity for a law officer with a nagging wife. Miller’s insistence that even the financial difficulties of the era did not permit him to cross the lines of honesty gets him in trouble with his brother officers as well as his wife. Yet it is his detecting that discloses an important piece of evidence in the hunt for the murderer who is scattering bits of bodies across the city.

Ms. Black skillfully links and compares the past and the present in terms of increasingly desperate police investigators and increasingly frightened people who don’t know who will be next on a killer’s apparently random list of victims. But the reader must be resigned to spending what may seem an inordinate length of time in a forensic laboratory.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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