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Val McDermid
The Retribution

Atlantic Monthly Press
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-802-12017-5
Publication Date: 01-03-2012
404 Pages; $25
Date Reviewed: 03-08-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Mystery

Entropy is the ultimate enemy. Things fall apart — lives fall apart. Or they may be torn asunder, shredded by a stand-in for entropy that takes pleasure in the process. Val McDermid finds entropy everywhere in 'The Retribution,' the seventh entry in her series featuring psychology professor Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan.

Jordan heads a task force that targets the bad stuff. She and Hill have worked together on six novels' worth of distressing murder, and put away some very bad men, including one Jacko Vance. As the novel begins the task force is called in on a case involving the murders of prostitutes. Vance has escaped, swearing not just revenge, but retribution. But the task force is told that they're being disbanded due to budget cuts. If Hill and Jordan aren't killed, they'll be fired. Ah, sweet entropy, always the eternal victor.

What sounds like a swan song proves to be a pretty good place to start, so long as you don't mind reading a smidge over 400 pages in as few sittings as you can manage. And some seriously well written violence. McDermid's writing is textured but tense. 'The Retribution will have you hitting the literary rewind button to pick up the previous novels in the series before you've seen entropy do its chaotic worst.

For all the scrupulously crafted suspense, the real appeal of McDermid's novel is her large, diverse and detailed cast of characters. Jordan and Hill have an increasingly complicated relationship, which is accelerated and explored in 'The Retribution.' But most importantly, the task force she heads is a superbly drawn group of individual characters whom McDermid brings to life with no effort. She knows just how much to tell us about her sergeants, Chris Devine and Kevin Matthews, her constables, Stacy Chen and Sam Evans, and of course, Paula McIntyre. They're being unmoored from the safety of their group as they work to pursue two dire murderers. All of the characters are enjoyable to read about, even Jacko Vance. McDermid clearly likes all of her characters, and readers will as well.

McDermid's plotting is unusual, in that you get a rather straightforward madman on the loose in Jacko Vance and a gritty, obscure killer doing things to prostitutes that take the novel well into the range of the horror genre. The novel manages to be both fast-paced and pleasingly dense, full of textures and scenes that you'll want to linger in, even as they're filled with dread. She weaves the personal lives of her task force in well, letting them have enough space to feel real, but hewing closely to the murder plots. Her resolutions are satisfying and rather different, as suits the crimes and those committing them.

McDermid's prose treads the line of detailed, but stays transparent and clean. 'The Retribution' manages to feel rich and full, but you'll read it in a trice. If it's the first book by her you read, chances are it will not be the last. McDermid knows how to explore the appeal of entropy, and those who would — however futile their effort may be — seek to stand in its way.

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