Crime waves

Killing the Shadows

Val McDermid <em>HarperCollins, 423pp, £16.99 </em>

ISBN 0002261081

G

When you earn a living by writing about violent death, to find that you have created the scenario for your own murder may feel like something of a sick joke. In Val McDermid's latest thriller, Killing the Shadows, crime writers are the victims, hunted by a killer who is determined to take revenge on those who have turned psychological profilers into modern-day heroes. Fiona Cameron, an academic psychologist who uses computer technology to help the police track down serial offenders, is reluctant to get involved - until, that is, it becomes clear that her boyfriend, himself a writer, is next on the list, destined to be murdered in a scene of his own imagining. In the words of one of the detectives on the case: "It's twisted but it makes a kind of sense."

As ever, McDermid's writing is quite superb. This story is a wonderful pastiche of other styles, from the American supersleuths of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs to the Scottish noir of Ian Rankin. Yet there is something not quite convincing. McDermid's previous novel, A Place of Execution, set in an isolated Derbyshire hamlet in the wake of the "Moors Murders", had an emotional intensity that was too often lost here in a barrage of computer print-outs and incessant e-mails. (McDermid's allegiance to technology may reflect the fast-changing world of criminal investigation, but it doesn't necessarily make for richer fiction.) Although Killing the Shadows is imaginative and flawlessly plotted, it fails to go that one step further.

Only a handful of writers, in any genre, can match Barbara Vine for imaginative originality and ingenuity. The mirror image of her earlier work, King Solomon's Carpet, her new book, Grasshopper, is a complex blend of familiar Vine themes: the hold of the past on the present; lives entwined by the smallest of coincidences; buried secrets and deep-seated fears.

Packed off to college at the age of 19 after her involvement in a fatal accident on a pylon, Clodagh swaps her Suffolk home for the stifling basement flat owned by an older academic cousin and his sitcom-star wife. Suffering from acute claustrophobia, she crosses London on foot and by bus. One day, by chance, she meets and falls in love with Silver, a privileged young man whose flat at the top of his parents' house is home to a strange collection of misfits and drop-outs united by their love of the city's rooftops. In their company, Clodagh experiences a new life of freedom and adventure, until the accidental glimpse of a couple on the run from the social services with their fostered child sparks a chain of events that lead to inevitable tragedy and, mysteriously, to her own redemption.

Grasshopper is about good intentions gone wrong, violence, innocence and an encounter with true evil. To read Vine's prose is to have vivid imaginative access to the spires of St Saviour's, St Mark's and St Augustine's; to a view of Regent's Park set out like the royal hunting ground it once was; to a place devoid of rules or even time, as unspoilt now as streets before the advent of cars. To say that a book can open your eyes to a different world is a cliche, but rarely has it been more apt than in describing this novel.