“My readers are probably going to kill me,” Val McDermid announces cheerfully when we discuss the ending of her latest novel. Her new Tony Hill and Carol Jordan book, Insidious Intent, was published last month, and the reaction of fans to how she has chosen to end it will be interesting. “There’s a certain fear of being stoned in the street,” she chuckles.We meet at the Theakston Old Peculier crime writing festival in Harrogate, where McDermid is practically royalty, and she has murder on her mind. This is not unusual, she says; quite frequently a pleasant weekend away will turn her thoughts to homicide. There was the time when she spotted a wedding party during a crime and mystery conference at her old college, St Hilda’s, Oxford, “and by the end of the afternoon it seemed to me that the logical thing that was going to have to happen was that the bridegroom would be dead by bedtime. And by the end of the weekend I had the basic shape of the story in my head.”
That flight of fancy turned into the 2010 novel, Trick of the Dark. And then, more recently, she and her partner went on a boating holiday. “In France you can moor up anywhere, and in order to facilitate this they give you five sharpened steel stakes, about two foot long, and a big hammer. And I’m looking at this and thinking, isn’t that a great murder weapon? And we’re cruising through wooded banks with no access from the road. And I’m saying to my partner, ‘This is a perfect murder here…’ By this time my partner is inching away from me. So, we were on this lovely romantic holiday, and my thoughts turned to murrrder.” She pronounces the word with obvious relish.
This is a writer who heartily enjoys being immersed in crime writing. She is one of the co-founders of the Harrogate festival, and chooses four debut authors a year to showcase in its New Blood panel. She’s looking for voices that are distinctive and fresh, she says, and is perfectly placed to see how the genre stays current and reflects pressing social issues. Recently, she has identified writers such as Joseph Knox, whose debut is a dark tale of Manchester life and illegal highs; Susie Steiner, who writes about struggling families, “what Mrs May calls Just About Managing”; and Eva Dolan, who concerns herself with immigrant communities in Peterborough … “I think there’s a real sense of how this form of writing can really shine a light on what’s happening”, McDermid says, proudly.
If the hypothesis is correct that sales of crime writing soar during troubled political times, then the genre must be thriving. But McDermid thinks it’s not so simple. “I can’t actually think of a time in my adult life when we haven’t been living in troubled times,” she says. “I think what we have now is a greater perception of the troubled times around us, and that’s partly because of … the 24/7 news cycle.” The consolation of crime fiction for the reader, she suggests, is that “although terrible things happen, at the end there is some sort of resolution”. The value of crime fiction for the writer is slightly different: “People can read these books and be afraid but in a safe way … and that I suppose gives you the freedom to explore other things in the book … You can write about politics, you can write about relationships, you can write about landscape, you can write about whatever you want to write about and frame it in this shape.”
McDermid’s last novel, Out of Bounds, for instance, included a group of Syrian refugees. Insidious Intent sees psychologist Tony Hill and Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan chasing a serial killer who picks up women at weddings, and later murders them. The reader knows who the killer is, and what his motives are, and certain scenes cleverly illustrate the new law that made coercive control illegal as of December 2015.
“I don’t do it with any sense of banging the drum,” she explains. “But I do it because things come along that interest me and I think will interest my readers and maybe open up people’s eyes to something they weren’t aware of before.”
Crime fiction has flourished since McDermid started writing it in the 1980s. “When I started out it was quite narrow in many respects,” she says. “Mostly in the UK what was being written was either village mysteries or police procedurals.” Having grown up in the 1950s and 1960s in Kirkcaldy, a former mining town on Scotland’s east coast, she didn’t see how she could translate her own experience into a crime novel a la Agatha Christie: “It’s not very much like St Mary Mead,” she observes. After university, she trained as a journalist, and worked for 14 years on national newspapers, eventually becoming the northern bureau chief of a Sunday tabloid. Her first novel, Report for Murder, was published in 1987 by the Women’s Press.
What convinced McDermid to begin writing was the new wave of feminist private eye novels coming out of the US in the 1980s. A friend who lived there had sent her a copy of Indemnity Only (1982), the first VI Warshawski novel by Sara Paretsky, “and that for me was a really exciting moment. It was a novel that had an urban setting, which right away fitted much more closely to my contemporary experience of the world. It had a female protagonist who had agency, a brain and a sense of humour. The other thing that struck me about those books was that there was a politics and an organic nature to them. The crimes that happened in those books happened because it was that kind of city, it was that kind of politics that ran the city, because these industries operated there, because that kind of corruption happened there. There’s a lot of cosy crime that feels like a murder’s been randomly bolted on. And Paretsky and Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller didn’t feel like that. And that excited me.”
McDermid’s fiction was exciting too. Not least because it had lesbians in it. When Report for Murder was published in Russia in 2001, she recalls, it was the first novel to be officially available with a lesbian protagonist. It went straight into the bestseller list at No 3. She proudly says the book has never been out of print in 30 years, and that women still approach her at signings to tell her how much those Lindsay Gordon novels meant to them. “I think part of the reason it has persisted … is that I never wrote books that were about the issue of being a lesbian”, she says. “Lindsay is a reporter who solves crimes who happens to be a lesbian. So that’s part of her identity. But the books are not about the terrible crisis of realising you’re gay, or coming out, or those elements. I grew up at a time when there weren’t any templates for living a lesbian life unless you wanted to be called Steven and wear a suit and kill yourself, so if I did think of anything in terms of the politics I suppose I wanted the next generation of lesbians to have something a bit more cheerful to read.”
I wonder if her publisher had any qualms about publishing the first ever lesbian detective stories. Not in the way I think, she laughs. “I did have some quite vigorous discussions with the publisher. Because Lindsay Gordon is a reporter, and she’s a reasonably successful freelance, but she’s a bit flash. Her nickname is Splash Gordon. And she’s got a sports car. And the editor was like, ‘I really don’t think this is an appropriate vehicle for her to be driving, could you perhaps consider a Citroen 2CV or a Renault 4?’ Because she was a lesbian feminist, and lesbian feminists didn’t drive around in sports cars, apparently.” She is keen to point out that she drives around in a sports car to this day. She also sponsors a stand at Raith Rovers’ ground in Kirkcaldy. What on earth would the 1980s lesbian feminists say?
McDermid married her partner, Professor Jo Sharp, in Edinburgh last October, and says she has “never been happier” in her life. Their matching wedding rings have a squiggle through the centre, tracing a wiggly line around the coast between their places of birth, Kirkcaldy and Perth. (“Sometimes geographers can be romantic,” she says, beaming.) “I think it’s still important to be publicly open about my sexuality, about who I am in the world. It’s not all of who I am, it’s not necessarily the most important thing about who I am, but it’s part of who I am. And there are still a lot of people for whom it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to make that declaration.”
The lesbian couple in Insidious Intent, Paula and Elinor, have their own everyday problems to contend with in the shape of their teenage son, Torin (McDermid also has a teenage boy). The unit’s tech expert, Stacey Chen, has a major role to play — she has had to become a fuller character to resolve the difficulty of making policing-by-computer interesting to readers, McDermid admits. Fans can look forward to some excellently gory forensics, too, of course. But the stars of the novel are Hill and Jordan, the veterans now of 10 novels, and this time they are really feeling the strain.
For the first time, McDermid has written a heartfelt “Dear reader” note to reviewers, in advance proof copies of this title, beseeching them not to give away the ending. “What you can say is that I have adhered to my promise that I would never kill either of them,” she tells me, strictly. Even more nerve-shreddingly, “the next book I’m going to write is another Karen Pirie [the investigations of a detective chief inspector set in Fife]. And the one after that I think is a standalone. I’m leaving [Tony and Carol] there till I know exactly how I’m going to move forward with them.” This is why McDermid fears readers bearing rocks …
Where do her characters go when she’s writing about other worlds? “I don’t know!” she says with a shrug. “They go to Spain or they go to the supermarket or whatever it is they do. When I’m writing Tony and Carol I’m not thinking, ‘What’s Karen doing today?’ She’s out of sight out of mind, sorry! And then when I go back to them, I’m thinking, ‘OK, what have you been up to when I wasn’t looking?’”
Meanwhile, McDermid has a writing project for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. Her story, “New Year’s Resurrection”, will be projected on to the city’s buildings, in an interactive, multimedia tour of the city that is making her “gobsmacked” and mildly terrified. “The more you get out in the world, the more you talk to people and the more you experience, the more possibilities open up for you. It all makes me into a better writer, and that’s what matters.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd