FEVER OF THE BONE is the sixth in the author's series about DCI Carol Jordan and criminal psychologist Tony Hill, but you don't need to have read the previous novels to appreciate this one. It is written with multi award-winning Val McDermid's usual professionalism, dependability, style and apparent effortlessness. Although some parts stray into formula and are even slightly tired, the book is replete with tiny, fascinating character sketches and barbs of insightful observations of modern mores that lift it way above the average. It's a perfect holiday or weekend piece of light reading (despite the dark central theme) that leaves plenty of issues to ponder after the last page is turned.
The main plot concerns the deaths of some young teenagers in and around the fictional town of Bradfield in northern England. Carol and her team find themselves looking for a person or people who stalked the youngsters by first befriending them on a social networking website called RigMarole, then luring them into a direct meeting, and then killing them. Very few details of the abductions and deaths are provided, thankfully, but it is harrowing to read about the impact of the disappearances on the children's parents, who seem to have done all they can to protect their offspring. While paying due respect to the emotions involved, the book shies away from covering much of these aspects and focuses mainly on the investigation: how Carol's "cold case" team discover clues via old-fashioned police work as well as by following the internet trail. One part of their multi-specialist approach is missing, however. Carol's new and unsympathetic boss, James Burke, will not let her call in Tony Hill to work on profiling the criminal, ostensibly for cost reasons but Carol senses egos are involved. Instead, Burke tells Carol to make do with one of the police force's own profilers, ironically a man trained by Tony. Of course the man is useless, leaving Carol and her colleagues pretty stuck as to how to proceed when the tangible leads run out.
Tony is not sitting around moping while all this is going on. At the end of the last book, he discovered that his estranged father had died, leaving him a considerable amount of money. Tony has no wish to learn anything about the life of the man who abandoned him as a baby, but he can't avoid sorting out his father's estate, having to sell his house and narrow boat in Worcester. By coincidence, Tony is contacted by the Worcester police who are at their wits' end over the killing of a young teenager and so hire Tony to create a criminal profile for them. Curious about his father's life despite himself, Tony agrees to take on the job and travels to Worcester, in the process ending up spending the night in his father's old house and beginning to discover unexpected things about his own past. (Helped without his knowledge and against his will by Carol, who confronts Vanessa, Tony's evil mother, to try to find some answers about the past lives of father and son.)
Carol and Tony are intensely involved with each other on an astral plane but can't admit their feelings openly (a longstanding theme). The action is stalled for a while because Carol is too principled to discuss details of her cases with Tony even though they live in the same house, because Tony is not officially involved. Eventually, they put their heads together and realise that the case Tony has profiled in Worcester is likely to be an earlier crime committed by the same person who killed the two teenagers in Bradfield. Tony is allowed back on the team and by joining forces with the attractively portrayed Alvin Ambrose of the Worcester police, Carol and her colleagues begin to narrow down their list of suspects. Val McDermid is bang up to the minute (or, rather, nanosecond) with her social media and technological know-how, providing a whistle-stop tour of security breaches and data-protection issues as the hunt becomes more targeted.
The criminal is eventually tracked down by a combination of traditional police detection and some (glossed-over) online gee-whizzery, with a dash of inspiration from Carol and Tony combined. Although the resolution is a logical and rational outcome of all the earlier clues, to me it did not seem credible in psychological terms, and nor did it seem likely that the criminal would have managed to obtain the specific information needed about which children to attack, despite the book's casual assumption that there is no security or code that cannot be hacked. For me, a stronger part of the book was the story of Tony's gradual discovery of his father, which is rather moving – and, one hopes, will enable him to move on a bit in his rather static relationship with Carol.
After reading this book, I learnt that Val McDermid and her publishers have created a social networking site called RigMarole, just as described in the book. In a spirit of curiosity I joined it, and have to admit it is an eerie experience to look around it and to see (and if you wish, interact with) the characters in the novel (some of whom meet sticky ends, and some of whom are distinctly unpleasant). I found this experience more unsettling than actually reading the book. If you want to look for yourself, the URL is http://rigmarole.ning.com/.