Scotland’s most revered crime writer, Val McDermid, publishes her 30th novel this week – but she has no intention of stopping there, finds Susan Mansfield.
Perhaps books are a bit like birthdays: you don’t really add up how many you’ve written until you hit a significant milestone. And then someone, your publisher, for example, reminds you that your next book will be your 30th. “It’s still quite astonishing to me,” says Val McDermid, who received an award at this year’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival for her outstanding contribution to the genre. “When I started I thought I had five or six books in me; they just kept coming.”
If one were to pause at this milestone and take stock, one might note the following: that McDermid is one of Scotland’s (and the UK’s) best-loved crime writers, with sales of 11 million books worldwide. That Nicola Sturgeon is a fan, and interviewed her at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival. That she is also a highly versatile author – of TV and radio drama, a book on forensics and even a picture book for children, all the while not breaking her stride with a steady output of whodunnits. A former tabloid journalist whose approach to writing is hard-working and businesslike, she has been so good at simply getting on with it that we are perhaps slow to notice how much she has achieved.
Her audience at the Book Festival today will be treated to a preview of her new (and 30th) novel, Out Of Bounds, to be published later this week. In it, McDermid is back with DCI Karen Pirie at the Cold Cases Unit, now based in Edinburgh. A DNA test on a young joyrider in Fife sparks fresh inquiries into a murder which happened 20 years ago. Meanwhile, another suspicious death leads Pirie to revisit a helicopter crash in the 1970s, a case definitely not within her remit, and certain to land her in trouble. It’s the kind of pacy, intelligent page-turner we’ve come to expect.
Even after 29 years and 30 books (“four books in 18 months once, madness”) she never feels short of ideas. They lodge themselves in her mind – anecdotes, snippets of stories, what ifs – where they percolate slowly into plots. “It can be years, a dozen years or more, until a story finally forms. I find I have to be willing to accumulate all sorts of clutter in the back of my head in the hope that it will make sense of itself. Sometimes I think of it as being like a giant compost heap, where all the extraneous matter rots away and you’re left with things that fit together in ways you hadn’t quite considered before.”
She’s comfortable with producing a book a year. “It seems to be the rate at which my imagination works. There’s always a queue of books in my head, ideas which are not quite ready to roll but are nearly there. If I didn’t have a deadline, I would just sit and do nothing all day. In journalism, nobody ever writes anything before the deadline.”
McDermid grew up in Kirkcaldy (she is still an avid Raith Rovers fan), and read voraciously through childhood. “We didn’t have books in the house, not because of a lack of interest but because of a lack of money, but when I was six my parents moved to live opposite the Central Library which became my home from home. In the Chalet School books [by Elinor Brent-Dyer] there is a character who grows up and becomes a writer. As soon as it dawned on me that being a writer was a job, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
As school, she was part of an education experiment by Fife Council to fast-track bright students, and became the first pupil from a Scottish state school to graduate from St Hilda’s College, Oxford. “I decided I was going to be a great literary novelist, because at 20 you know the secrets of the universe. I wrote this truly terrible novel, all about tortured human relationships.” The book garnered only rejections from publishers, but, at the suggestion of an -actor friend, she turned it into a play for the local theatre. “By the age of 23, I was a professionally-performed playwright, but I couldn’t capitalise on that success because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Instead, she became a journalist, and got switched on to crime writing after a friend in America sent her a copy of Sara Paretsky’s first novel, Indemnity Only. “I had this eureka moment of, ‘This is the kind of crime fiction I really want to write’. A strong female protagonist who did her own heavy lifting, had a brain and a sense of humour, worked in an urban setting, with crimes that were organic, not just random murders bolted on to an English village, and the books had a personal and a social politics.”
Her first crime novel, Report for Murder, featuring investigative journalist Lindsay Gordon, was published by Women’s Press in 1987. But, after three Lindsay Gordon novels written while working as a senior journalist at the Sunday People, she set her sights higher. “I wanted to write full-time, but it was clear that I wasn’t going to make much of a living writing lesbian feminist crime novels for a small independent publisher.” Thus Manchester private eye Kate Brannigan was born.
Picked up by mainstream publisher Gollancz, McDermid did a “back of an envelope” calculation and packed in the day job “with the big salary, company car, expense account, pension – everybody thought I was crazy”. The first two years were tough, but The Mermaids Singing, the first book to feature clinical psychologist Tony Hill and detective Carol Jordan, broke through into the bestseller lists, and was later adapted for television as Wire In The Blood starring Robson Green and Hermione Norris.
McDermid still draws on the “huge dataset of people and places” she gathered as a journalist. “The thing about journalism is that you parachute into people’s lives, you see them often in a situation of crisis. That’s an extremely handy thing to have tucked away in your toolbox.” But she never draws on the crime stories she covered. Memories of interviewing the families of the victims of the Moors murders, even years after they happened, put paid to that. “I saw what sudden violent death does to the people it touches. I had enough living off other people’s misery when I was a journalist, I don’t want to do it now!”
However, her books do buzz with the issues of the moment, whether internet trolling, or (in Out Of Bounds) the appearance of Syrian refugees in Edinburgh. She believes fiction has a role in raising issues readers might find hard to stomach, something she has reflected on again post-Brexit. “I think, perhaps, we have failed in our obligation [as writers] to reflect more than just the corner of society that it suits us to write about. I find racism vile, misogyny horrible, homophobia deeply depressing, so when people like me write about characters with those points of view, we tend not to make those characters sympathetic.
“I think the majority has tilted, but there’s still an awful lot of people who occupy the other space, and the more we ignore them or dismiss them, the more irate they get. It’s not about giving bad people the oxygen of publicity, it’s about engaging with their ideas and providing a critical space. We should probably put most focus on the things that make us most uncomfortable.”
If Val McDermid is pausing at the milestone of her 30th book, it’s only for a moment. She’s not given to spending undue time contemplating the past when there’s work to be done.“I don’t look back very much, I much prefer to look forward. It’s the books still to come that excite me.”
l Val McDermid is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival today at 8.15pm. Out of Bounds is published this week by Little, Brown.