Val McDermid is fascinated by violence and, as the best-selling author tells Jackie McGlone , she can't understand why people are so shocked that women enjoy writing about horrific crimes
THERE is one question Val McDermid – once a tabloid news reporter with a nose for a cracking story – is fairly certain no hard-bitten hack will be asking her over the next few weeks. And that is? "Where is all the violence in your new novel?" she replies.
Her Fife accent is weighty with sarcasm, but her cynicism is justified. "No violence in Val McDermid thriller" is hardly an eye-catching headline.
"But it's not a violent book, is it?" repeats McDermid, as we meet in the hushed lobby of the chic Covent Garden hotel, to discuss her latest novel, A Darker Domain.
And she's right – if you discount the slaughtered body fed to the pigs on a Tuscan farm – this riveting tale is not violent. Not by 53-year-old McDermid's standards anyway.
The mega-selling, award-winning crime novelist (ten million copies of her books sold worldwide and still counting) is renowned for the stomach-churning nature of the graphic violence in her novels such as the hugely successful Tony Hill series on which the popular ITV Robson Green vehicle, Wire in the Blood, is based. A new, sixth series starts soon and it's going to be hard to escape the Oxford-educated McDermid and all her works this autumn. A three-parter based on her 1999 novel, A Place of Execution, starring Juliet Stevenson and Greg Wise, begins on ITV later this month.
Meanwhile, McDermid, who is short and stocky with a shock of white hair that stands to attention because she's constantly running her fingers through it, is tipped to win ITV3's Crime Thriller Writer Award, to be announced on October 3. She has also just presented a fascinating Radio 4 two-parter, From Ban to Booker, in which the lesbian author and self-confessed radical feminist and socialist examined the flowering of fiction by lesbian women since the ban imposed on Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness 80 years ago.
"There was only one listener complaint," she says, her sharp, watchful eyes dancing with mischief. "Someone rang in to complain about the use of the word crap at 11 o'clock in the morning on the BBC. Go figure!"
But back to A Darker Domain. It's a stand-alone in that it's not part of her trio of series, featuring respectively Tony Hill, Kate Brannigan and Lindsay Gordon. Instead, she has DI Karen Pirie, who is sharp as a tack and overweight, and her dark, wiry sidekick, DS Phil Pahatka, on the case.
"You know," she says, "I'm just fascinated with the reasons people do terrible things to each other. I hope I write honest books, I write about violence in a very direct way. It hurts, it damages the lives of everyone it touches and that's what interests me, as well as the fact that I cannibalise real people and their stories – all writers feed on people."
Well, I tell her, as she whisks up the froth on a cappuccino with a posh chocolate biscuit, there have been some pretty sensational murders in her books: death by medieval torture implements, for instance, such as the razor wire-covered dildo in The Torment of Others.
I could go on but that's quite enough for the time being given that the concierge has just given me a baleful look. "Aye well," responds McDermid. "There's still this funny notion that women should not write violent fiction and yet women are more often than not the victims of sexual violence. So what are we saying, that the ones most likely to experience it should not write about it? Men have been writing about unspeakable crimes against women for ever."
When the feminist writer Joan Smith claimed that McDermid's books were full of dead bodies and gratuitous violence towards women, the writer dug out her back catalogue and did a body count. At that point., she'd "murdered" 12 men, 12 women and one transsexual. However, the number of corpses has risen since, although A Darker Domain racks up only four deaths – two men and two women. "How's that for equal opportunities?" she laughs. The book marks a return to her roots for McDermid. It's set in her native Fife and skilfully plotted so that the story switches back and forth between the present day and 1984, the year of the miners' strike. It's a gripping read in which the investigation of a missing miner last seen 23 years ago collides with the cold case of the kidnap and holding to ransom of the daughter of an arrogant local landowner and self-made tycoon.
A tribute to her maternal grandparents, Meg and Tom McCall, A Darker Domain's dedication reads: "They showed me love, they taught me about community, and they never forgot the shame of standing in line at a soup kitchen to feed their bairns." She says it burned into her grandmother's soul that she had to stand in line to feed her children – an experience she's drawn on for A Darker Domain. "It was the most mortifying thing that happened to my grandmother in her life. These are the values that I grew up with, they made me, they shaped me."
Thanks to her beloved grandparents, she also grew up loving the sea, the woods and the works of Agatha Christie. "No small debt."
An only child, she was fearsomely bright, winning a place at St Hilda's, Oxford, when she was just 16, the first Scottish state school student to go to the university.
Growing up in Kirkcaldy – her dad was a shipyard worker before becoming an insurance agent – books were a luxury for McDermid. However, her grandparents had the Bible ("I never got beyond all the begats") and Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage, which developed her taste for murder fiction; then she discovered Kirkcaldy Library at an early age.
She still believes Christie is a far better writer than she's been given credit for. "She's very funny, very sharp and satirical about English village life."
Her grandad was a miner, who revelled in the open air. "He was like the Pied Piper, always exploring the woods around East Wemyss, with a posse of children at his heels. He made us bows and arrows and told us the names of all the plants. On the shore he'd show us shells. We had the freedom to run wild back then.
"He should never have been sent down into that infernal pit with the stink and the darkness and the wet. It's unthinkable. A hellish job!"
The past and the present are themes that have often exercised McDermid's vivid imagination, which she says cheerfully is nothing like as dark and twisted as we think. In fact, she's extremely squeamish and can't stand the sight of blood, despite the gore in her books.
Which is one reason why she took such exception to last year's "Revenge of the Bloodthirsty Lesbians" headlines in the wake of her literary spat with fellow crime writer Ian Rankin, who had said in an interview: "The people writing the most graphic novels today are women. They are mostly lesbians as well, which I find interesting."
All hell broke loose. McDermid dismissed Rankin's observation as "arrant rubbish", although he was a guest at her wedding in Alnmouth last year when she and her partner, the American publisher Kelly Smith, married in a civil ceremony.
She and Smith live there because it's "a very very human place". McDermid shares the custody of her seven-year-old son, Cameron, with her former partner. Indeed, Rankin has claimed that he danced at McDermid's wedding. "Ian dancing! I don't remember that," she laughs, although he was the life and soul of a wonderful party. So, they remain good pals, despite the press having a field day with his remarks. What really riled McDermid, though, was that "bloodthirsty" headline. It made her sound like some ghastly bloodsucking demon who shouldn't be allowed near small children. "It was outrageous!" she exclaims. "Preposterous nonsense. It made me very, very angry. Killer lesbians indeed!"
• A Darker Domain by Val McDermid (HarperCollins, 17.99).