The Retribution is the seventh book in Val McDermid’s long-running, excellent series of police procedural, mystery-thriller novels featuring DCI Carol Jordan and Dr. Tony Hill, primarily set in the fictional city of Bradfield in Northern England. Hill is a criminal psychological profiler who uses his expertise to assist the police in tracking down lawbreakers (usually serial killers) by extrapolating information about the psychology and motivations of the perpetrators from the nature of their crimes and crime scenes. DCI Jordan leads the Major Incident Team (MIT), a handpicked collection of police officers with special skills (like lucrative computer hacking skills used for crime-fighting instead of profit) who often get results on cases that resist resolution by typical police methods.
The Retribution is centered around two problematic crime sprees. The first is a now-familiar series of horrific murders of “working girls” in the Temple Fields (red light/gay ghetto) section of downtown Bradfield. Each of the three killings is quite different from each other but each victim has the word “mine” tattooed somewhere on the corpse. It takes awhile for the police to recognize there’s only one killer involved because the bodies are in such variable states of intactness when they are discovered. Eventually the police do hand the case over to MIT. However, it will likely be the unit’s last case. Carol’s new boss has decided that having a cadre of specialized officers who work on the hardest cases and get good results is “too expensive” so she’s taken a DCI job at West Mercia and her team’s officers will likely be forced join the regular detective rotation if they stay in Bradfield. West Mercia, not coincidentally, happens to be near where Tony has recently moved into a huge mansion he inherited from his late estranged father in Fever of the Bone.
The second crime spree featured in The Retribution is significantly more serious. It involves one of the key villains from Wire in the Blood, one of the earlier, excellent entries in the Hill-Jordan series, Jacko Vance. Jacko was a television celebrity, one of the most recognizable faces in England when a member of Tony’s "baby profilers" (a group of police officers whom Tony was training to use his psychological techniques to suss out criminal motives) realized that Vance was a likely suspect in the disappearance of multiple teenage girls. Jacko killed the officer horribly just because he could, not because he was in serious danger of being revealed by her, but this event was the break that Tony and Carol needed to realize that Jacko was a serial killer. Now it’s many years later and Jacko manages to escape prison and he has a plan to seek retribution on the people that forced him to lose a dozen years of his life in prison. Jacko was assisted by a guy who never believed in his guilt to set Jacko up with a safe house, surveillance on his potential targets and ways and means to conduct his revenge. Of course, the first thing Jacko does when he’s in the safe house is stick a knife in his benefactor. And then he begins to successfully get his retribution on those who he thinks wronged him, which includes Carol and Tony. But, because he doesn’t attack them directly, but instead targets people and things near and dear to them, it takes awhile for Tony to figure out where Jacko will strike next and by then irreparable harm has occurred to those they love.
McDermid is rightly called the Queen of Crime for a reason. She is a Master at ratcheting up the level of suspense as one reads more and more of the book. One of her strengths is the clever way she doles out information to the reader about her characters and their motivations and actions. For example, we get a lot of first-person perspective from Jacko in The Retribution, so the reader can only watch with horror as we see him successfully commit his crimes while simultaneously seeing his pursuers struggle to even begin figuring out what’s going on. Additionally, McDermid does an incredible job at creating characters whose motivations are clearly described, leading to significant relationships. Access to the inner monologue of Tony and Carol as well as several of the secondary characters is a clear strength of the series.
Of course, the most significant relationship in these books is the one between Carol and Tony. Although it is not romantic, it is both more and less significant than a romantic relationship. For Tony, it is the most important relationship in his life. For Carol, Tony is her most important professional relationship, but she has more family support. The events of The Retribution are devastating to their connection, and one of the reasons to read the next book is to find out if their relationship survives and to read what happens next.
Overall, The Retribution is one of the most significant entries in the series, although I would not say it is one of the best. It definitely possesses McDermid’s now-familiar heart-pounding suspense, but both mysteries are not really that complicated since the who-dunnit aspect is minimal. (We know Jacko is one of them, and the second one is revealed pretty quickly. However in both cases it is the chase to see how/when/if the police can capture the perpetrator before they kill even more people which is the primary source of the suspense.)
The most memorable element is the sudden rupture in the Hill-Jordan relationship, but this change is surprisingly not well motivated and could be argued that it comes out of nowhere. Regardless, things will be different in the future for both of them, and I look forward to reading the subsequent books to find out what happens!
Title: The Retribution.
Author: Val McDermid.
Paperback: 413 pages.
Publisher: Little Brown.
Date Published: September 1, 2011.
Date Read: August 22, 2020.
GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆ (4.5/5.0).
OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.83/4.0).