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The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid

Harper, 2010, 537 p. First published 1997. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 The Wire in the Blood cover

I have not seem the TV series into which this was adapted so had no preconceptions, nor illusions to be shattered, but it wasn’t long into the novel before I was wondering why it made it onto a list of Scotland’s favourite books. It seemed like a reasonably standard crime (or police procedural) novel with nothing particular to distinguish it. Okay there is a twist in the sense that we are in the midst of a newly set up (and experimental – for the UK) psychological profiling unit but we have the usual coppers reluctant to accept something different from their common practice. Then there were the things that swiftly irritated or grated. We discover who the baddy is in the prologue, pretty well dispelling the suspense and rendering the sections where we learn how he got to be psychopathic less revealing than they might be. Several early sections begin in journalese – the first three are, “Tony Hill lay in bed,” “Shaz Bowman understood perfectly,” “Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan slipped the original out of the photocopier.” With the odd exception this practice is repeated throughout, though perhaps with surnames omitted. Fair enough we are dealing with a range of viewpoints and authors may need to signal who the relevant character is but this way of doing it is, at the least, inelegant. Then there is the fact that in the text no crime is committed till well after page 100, which for a crime novel, I would submit, is lumberingly slow. The sub-plot, about a fire-raiser in East Yorkshire, seemed only to be there to give one of the characters a tenuous connection to the experiences of the profiling expert. And the victims are portrayed as almost asking for their fate – certainly by the killer but also by the police officers investigating (cursorily) their disappearances – which is disconcerting.

Having said that, McDermid does know her tool – language – and deploys it well (only three entries for Pedant’s Corner is remarkable for a book this length) and her plotting was accomplished even if it unravelled a little slowly and the psychopath’s mistake was obvious from the moment it happened (and somewhat unlikely I’d have thought.)

I have read that McDermid modelled her psychopath on Jimmy Savile (brave for the time, and she expected to be taken up on it) but while he is a very well-known TV personality here and does good works in hospitals as a cover, he is also married – albeit in a sham arrangement – and a former Olympic athlete, sufficient divergence I’d have thought for any resemblance to be muted or passed over. (Plus Savile wasn’t a murderer – as far as I know – and could he have taken the risk of litigation? Might that not have signalled his recognition of himself in the portrayal?)

I suppose the main attraction to this sort of thing is the possible insight into the mind of a killer and in particular in this case to the art of psychological profiling but I’ll not be in a hurry to read another McDermid.

Pedant’s Corner:- fit (fitted,) dissemblement (my dictionary gives dissemblance, but states it is rare. In any case inventing words isn’t impermissible.) “‘Play it as it lays.’” (Should be “as it lies” but it was in dialogue and so may have been true to the character.)

A Case of Scapegoating?

I see BBC Director General George Entwistle has been “grilled” by MPs over the Jimmy Savile allegations.

While Savile’s activities ought to be investigated and the truth brought to light I suspect that similar failings of oversight to those the BBC is being charged with would have been present in any large organisation during the times concerned. The mechanisms were not in place then and neither was the awareness.

Granted, the presence of teenage girls at the average Top of the Pops recording was likely to be higher than at other places. These girls (possibly some boys too) were moreover likely to be starry-eyed, but the same would also have been true backstage at any rock gig; and probably still is.

So why the focus on the BBC? It was not only there that Savile is alleged to have acted predatorily or carried out abuse.

I look forward to MPs smilarly “grilling” the bosses at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Leeds General, Broadmoor and at the various children’s homes he was given privileged access to – all of whom arguably had a greater duty of care to those on or in their premises than had the BBC – and for that questioning to be given similar prominence in news reports.

It is sickening to realise that Savile’s volunteering to “help” at these hospitals and homes and also his charity work may have been undertaken – most likely was – precisely as a means of gaining access to vulnerable people.

This affair should not be a stick with which to beat the BBC but a way to ensure that victims of predatory sexual behaviour and of abuse can be encouraged to come forward – and be listened to when they do and for those in charge of vulnerable individuals to be much more careful about to whom they grant access to their in their care.

Jimmy Savile

I was at the game at Stirling on Saturday. The weekend coincided with the birthday of my younger son and I didn’t get home till later than usual.

As a result I hadn’t much time to think about the demise of Jimmy Savile.

Savile was certainly one of life’s one-offs. Instantly recognisable, among his lesser achievements was one I have noted before. He invented bling. No-one else on TV had his flamboyance yet there was an edge of irritation attached to his appearances, to the forced jollity, to the smugness he displayed on Jim’ll Fix It. (By the way, they weren’t “Jim’ll Fix It” badges. That was the name of the show. The wording on each medallion – and how Savilesque were they? – was “Jim Fixed It For Me.”) For all his hail fellow well met bonhomie you always felt that you never came near to the real man.

Yet he raised £30,000,000 pounds for various charitable causes (£12 million for Stoke Mandeville National Spinal Injuries Centre alone) and is said to have contributed 90% of his not insubstantial annual income to charitable trusts. That’s not a bad claim to fame.

He may have pioneered aspects of disc-jockeying and been a leader in parleying that endeavour into a wider media career but it was as if he pushed the world away. The TV interview he gave Louis Theroux offered the vision of someone not at all at ease with himself and his devotion to his dead mother strayed well beyond the admirable into the deeply strange. Whatever secrets actually lay behind the mask he presented to the world we may never know.

Perhaps it was appropriate he was born on Halloween.

James Wilson Vincent Savile: 31/10/1926 – 29/10/2011. So it goes.

Edited to add (17/10/12):- With the recent revelations of his abusing children and hospital patients that Halloween birthdate is even more spooky.

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