Splinter the Silence by Val McDermid
A timely psychological thriller with an unusual emphasis on characterisation.
I won’t pretend I’ve been a diehard Tony Hill and Carol Jordan fan for years.
Until recently, I’d never read Val McDermid’s (possibly) most well-known series, having instead read her non-fiction and standalones. Then I heard about Splinter the Silence. A novel already being lauded for its timely exploration of online aggression and trolling, I felt instant intrigue descend. So, having taken it upon myself to read all nine books in the series before reviewing the latest instalment, I think it’s fair to say I’ve overdosed on McDermid.
McDermid’s journalistic talent is evidenced throughout her novels, using the crime genre to reflect life and social history at various stages.
Splinter the Silence epitomises this talent. It embraces today’s zeitgeist. It taps directly into one of the most polemical contemporary problems: online abuse and the effects of ‘internet deindividuation‘. In fact, in many ways the novel is so on the thumb it’s hard to conceive what clues its dissection of ideas truly reveals.
Since the explosion of social media, women and LGBTQ have suffered some of the most extreme online violence (though by no means is this exclusive) – ranging from harassment to revenge porn and blackmail. Epitomising this trend in recent weeks, we’ve had the lead singer of CHVRCHES talking about the vicious backlash to a music video in which she wore a ‘short’ dress, and the blow-up story of lawyer Charlotte Proudman. In an interview with Good Morning Britain, McDermid pointed out such abuse is an issue close to her heart, though for any reader of her this is not a revelation.
Anonymous, violent hatred is a central motif in Splinter the Silence, with the killer’s loathing of women underpinning his sinisterly secretive murders. Not just another nasty little troll, the internet is his method of unearthing his next victim, of continuing his terrible campaign through murder. But he’s also not just another serial killer. He’s not after the glory. Far from it. He wants to go unnoticed. For his victims to steal the limelight. These are murders disguised as suicides. But so far the only person noticing anything amiss is criminal profiler Tony Hill.
How do you catch a killer when officially there’s no victim? Hell, according to the novel’s forensics, there are no forensics. No loose ends. No murder.
Hill, however, is trained to see patterns, to decode the horror lurking behind human behaviour, and something about the suicides has his mind grasping at a missing connection.
In a twist so deftly penned it haunts McDermid’s narrative, it’s this question of physicality that makes Splinter the Silence stand out from her other works. Mirroring the blurred boundaries between online and real life, the novel illustrates the fragile distinction between fleshly and virtual bodies. By exhuming online behaviours and attitudes, she thrusts them under the microscope and demonstrates how easy it would be for such arbitrary margins to disappear all together. The novel has a voice, whispering to the reader just as it does Tony Hill: as more of our lives become digital, social norms will withdraw, identities forgotten behind concealment. This is dangerous.
It’s psychological ‘deindividuation’ on an extreme level, a panopticon in reverse, but McDermid guides us so smoothly between crime and commentary, killer and kindred that thus arises a certain chimerical horror, an understanding of the inevitable conclusion.
To discuss the book in further detail would be to disclose a few too many spoilers and verge into literary criticism, but what I found curious about Splinter the Silence beyond the central plot, was the focus on character development.
Hill and the currently ex-DCI Carol Jordan have both seen better days. At the beginning of the novel, their relationship remains tentative. The murder of Jordan’s beloved brother in Retribution still phantoms through their lives even after the terrible events of Cross and Burn forced them back together. For this reason Carol in particular is far from the sharp-eyed, bitingly incisive detective first met in The Mermaid’s Singing. As the ninth instalment commences, she is instead renovating a barn in the middle of nowhere as a near recluse with a sheepdog and an alcohol problem. An addiction that has her arrested for drink driving within the first chapter and turning to Tony to bail her out.
It was in these non-thriller elements I found a few snags.
For one, the emphasis paid to Jordan and her battle with drink, the attention on her desire for a vodka and tonic that ‘burn[s] through her like electricity in the vein’, seems peculiar within the larger story from the outset.
Ensuring readers need previous knowledge of the series and characters, her need for the ‘smooth glide of a Pinot Grigio’ ties into what feels more like the set up for Book Ten (TBC). As a subplot it’s more concerned with reuniting several favourite cast members than contributing essential information to Splinter the Silence. On the one hand, for long-standing fans (especially “Hildan” shippers) this is a positive move after the upheaval of Retribution. On the other, during these segways, the momentum of the actual plot siphons away. Jordan’s personal crises and Hill’s continued guilt feel sluggish against the more fascinating mind of the killer and increasingly time-sensitive investigation. At points, the novel even begins to feel more like a family drama between the former team rather than a thriller.
Didacticism also slips in with McDermid’s authorial voice making uncharacteristically clumsy entries. This becomes obvious as she spells out certain ‘revelations’ to the reader. There’s a moment where one character, one I’ve frequently noticed acts as something of a commentator across the series, thinks rather loudly: ‘One of the things he’d liked about Carol Jordan’s team right from the start was that they were such a mix – gay and straight, brown and yellow and ginger – and the genuinely seemed blind to difference when it came to working together’. It’s a discordant sentence impressing upon the reader the diversity of the novel’s cast. Similarly, in a Dickensian narrator type way, McDermid’s presence becomes pronounced when a disembodied portent concludes a chapter: ‘When she’d said he didn’t deserve her, Stacey had been more right than she knew.’ This breaks the otherwise close third-person narrative neatly slipping between characters and introduces an omniscient authority that promptly disappears again by the turn of the page.
Whilst neither of these issues may detract from the reading for some, certain passages felt clunky, slow, and off-topic as a consequence for me.
However, as a text, it still does what the best crime novels do: it taps into the troubled spirit of today.
Splinter the Silence conveys an issue many struggle to discuss without descending to the same levels as the trolls themselves, and that is why – as long as you’ve read the rest of them – I’d highly recommend picking it up and reading it for yourself.
Splinter the Silence is published by Little, Brown (18.99). Click here to order a Hardback copy for £9.00 on Amazon (£7.99 in Paperback, or £9.99 on Kindle).