Val McDermid is a best-selling Scottish crime writer, with 25 novels under her belt. From the gumshoe-reporter Lindsay Gordon (the UK’s first openly lesbian detective) to the dark to the seamy underbelly of Dr Tony Hill’s Bradfield, McDermid has traversed the spectrum of crime and transfixed her readers for decades. But she’s never shied from controversy. The Tony Hill series, featuring the eccentric criminal psychologist and DI Carol Jordan, is renowned for its violent and disturbing narratives. Often involving sexual violence and torture, it’s fiction that challenges our perceptions of traditional gendered storytelling. As such, McDermid has been subject to some recent unedifying criticism – in 2007, The Times infamously ran the headline ‘Revenge of the bloodthirsty lesbians’, while other critics have labelled her work as full of dead bodies and gratuitous violence towards women. Yet at the heart of McDermid’s fiction is a profound control of story – deftly plotted and populated with authentic and endearing characters – and you’re drawn into these worlds, however blood-splattered they may be.
Kill Your Darlings spoke with Val McDermid about her new novel, why she writes crime and the changing landscape of UK publishing.
– Rebecca Starford
KYD: Hi Val, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to Kill Your Darlings. Congratulations on the new book.
VM: Thank you.
KYD: How are things going over there in the UK at the moment? Is everything starting to settle down after the riots, which are now into their seventh night?
VM: The rioting certainly seems to have stopped, at least for the time being. So we’ll just have to see how it goes from here.
KYD: Yeah, it’s been quite extraordinary. I guess in another way it’s not totally unexpected.
VM: I think the thing to hold on to here is that this was not a political riot. There were no politics involved – this was greed, envy and violent looting. This is not about people with a political agenda. And I think you almost have to differentiate between the root causes of their behaviour, which goes back historically 30 years – and there are political reasons why they’ve ended up in the places they’ve ended up. But the people themselves have no politics; the rioters themselves have no politics. This is purely about materialistic looting. It’s not people taking to the streets out of disaffection.
I think there are plenty of reasons to be disaffected, but they weren’t doing it out of any sense of politics.
KYD: Well, yes – and so David Cameron’s rhetoric was all the more troubling. I guess the question is how do you rein in that kind of behaviour if it’s not politicised; how do you make these young people care about what they’re doing? I think that’s a great challenge.
VM: I think you’re right. The question is: what do we do about this? And I think, to be perfectly blunt about it, most of us haven’t got a clue.
KYD: Well, now on to your new book, The Retribution – which is your twenty-fourth book, is that correct?
KYD: Twenty-fifth – that’s a fantastic achievement. To readers who might not be familiar, The Retribution is part of the Tony Hill series – which charts the cases of psychological profiler Dr Tony Hill and his work with the Bradfield Police Department. Tony works very closely with the Major Incidents Team, headed by the formidable Detective Inspector Carol Jordan. The books have inspired a critically acclaimed television series, Wire in the Blood, starring Robson Green and Hermione Norris.
The Retribution is a sequel, of sorts, to Wire in the Blood – which is the second book in the Tony Hill series, published in 1997. It reintroduces your readers to Jacko Vance, who is the psychopathic serial killer who terrified us all in Wire in the Blood.
I’m interested in discussing the development of these books, but I’d first like to look back at your earlier work – I’d like to take our readers back a few years to better understand the trajectory of your writing career. What prompted you to move away from the Lindsay Gordon and Kate Brannigan series (where you wrote about female protagonists, one an investigative reporter, another a private detective) into the seedier, darker and twisted world of the Bradfield police and criminal profiling? Was this a conscious move from these more conventional whodunits into serial-killer narratives, or a natural evolution of your stories, working as you had been with the crime genre?
VM: It was an evolution of the writing, if you like. But, as much as anything, it was to do with the idea of stories. For me, it always starts with stories. That’s always at the heart of it. Also at the heart of it is the challenge for me as a writer. The push has always been for me to grow and develop and to do different things. When I started off writing the Lindsay Gordon books, I had originally planned those as a trilogy, which was tribute to my lack of narrative sophistication [laughs].
The book I really wanted to write in the Lindsay Gordon series was the third one [Final Edition], but I couldn’t figure out how to get there without writing the first two. But now I think I have the skill to roll it all up into one volume, as it were.
I always knew that when I reached the end of those three books I was going to do something different. I was reading Sara Paretsky and Barbara Wilson, and I thought the idea of the American private-eye novel – that first-person narrative – was really interesting, and I wanted to see if that could transfer to the UK. So there was the ambition to write a different kind of book, to see if I could push myself into the shoes of protagonists who were very, very different from my own experiences of the world. And, to be honest, I wanted to write something that would be more mainstream.
There was also another element – a kind of subversive element – where I thought: ‘I’m a crime reader, I know the way crime readers read. What we tend to do when we find a new writer is just read everything that they’ve written.’ So I figured if I wrote the Kate Brannigan books successfully then it would be something that I could use as springboard to get readers to read all my other work.
KYD: Well, that’s proven to be an excellent strategy. I’m curious as to what it is about the serial-killer Jacko Vance particularly that drew you back to writing about him again. Had you always planned to continue his story?
VM: No. I have no overall plan with the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan books. I mean, I wrote the first, The Mermaid Singing, as a stand-alone. That was my intention. But as I wrote it, and as I drew closer to the characters and began to understand the scope of what I could do with those characters, it was clear to me that I could write more books. So I continued with the series.
But I’ve never been further than one book ahead; I don’t have some overarching sense that there’s going to be 10 books, or whatever. I’ve never had a long-term plan for the series, it’s always been: ‘Okay, I’ve done this book. What’s next?’
I didn’t consciously plan to revisit the character of Jacko Vance, but when I finished Fever of the Bone, it just seemed to me that it would be quite interesting to revisit a character from the past because it would also show how Tony and Carol were in a different place.
KYD: And there are lots of references to the storylines that have come before, and it’s very much interlinked. It’s great to see that continuity. Even the more minor characters, like Paula for example, who’s a fellow officer in Carol Jordan’s squad – as a reader you’re really invested in their development and it makes you hungry, if you’re not reading in order, to find out what happened in the previous books.
VM: There’s a real challenge for me, as well, to make it possible for the books to be read independently from each other. That’s important. You can’t legislate for readers to have read the whole series, and so every book has to be accessible and comprehensible in its own terms. That was one of the big challenges in revisiting Jacko Vance, because of course I know all about him in my own head, but for most readers – even those who’ve read the whole series – it’s probably been quite a while since they’ve read Wire in the Blood.
Fortunately I was able to force my wife to read it. Normally she won’t read the Tony Hill books because she finds them too violent.
KYD: [Laughs]. Okay…
VM: [Laughs]. So I made her read this book because she was coming at it, if you like, as the virgin reader. She was able to tell me if there were any issues with this book, as a reader with no previous knowledge.
KYD: I read an interview with you in the Guardian, back in 2007. You were talking about a certain controversy surrounding female crime writers and violence.
VM: Oh God.
KYD: [Laughs]. And you were quoted as saying: ‘There is still a funny notion that women should not write violent fiction, and yet women, more often than not, are the victims of sexual violence. So what are we saying – that the ones most likely to experience it should not write about it?’
I’m wondering if you think this attitude still prevails within the crime-writing community, and within the broader reading community, if we can call it that.
VM: Well, I think the very fact that you ask the question in a way answers it. It continually comes up at book festivals, on panels; I regularly get asked about it. And it’s clear that there is still an issue about women writing violence. I don’t understand why we are somehow not supposed to write about that which affects us.
KYD: I agree with where you’re coming from, and the motivations behind that statement. It’s interesting to think who’s perpetuating those attitudes, as well. I remember, as a younger person, in my late-teens, watching television crime series, and – with no real sophistication in this observation – noticing how often women were subject to violence. But then, as soon as any violence against women is written by women, the issue is turned on the women writers with what seems to be staggering hypocrisy.
VM: I think part of the reason for it is because women and men approach violence from such a different direction. Women grow up with almost a culture of fear: we’re taught that we’re little girls and that we’re vulnerable, that there are bad people out there; don’t go down that alley after dark; don’t walk the streets alone after dark; don’t dress like that, you’re asking for trouble. I don’t think there’s a woman alive who’s walked down the street after dark and not felt this fear.
When men write about violence towards women, they write about it from the position of spectator, if you like. For women, it’s different – we totally know where it’s coming from.
KYD: Has this controversy had an effect on the way you write violence? Have you sought, in a way, to more actively rectify these attitudes? Because it seemed to me that The Retribution is particularly brutal in its violence – terrorising not only the peripheral characters but also Carol Jordan herself.
VM: In a sense, I feel immune from the discussion because it’s one I’ve been having with myself since the very start of my career. I don’t do any of this lightly; I don’t write anything lightly. And if you’re writing books that are dealing with sexual violence, then you have to be thinking about these issues constantly. But at the same time, I’m not interested in writing for cheap thrills. In a way, the discussion has raged around me – I don’t pay much attention to it when it comes to my own writing life.
That’s why you really do rely on the other people you work with to keep you honest. To say to you: ‘I think you’ve gone too far.’ There are writers I won’t read, for example, who I think take violence too far.
KYD: Oh yes? Do you care to name any of them?
VM: [Laughs]. No, I don’t.
KYD: [Laughs]. But why it is that this question of violence, and the perpetration of such violence in contemporary crime fiction, is never closely critiqued when it’s penned by a male writer?
VM: Well, what’s frustrating to me is that I’ve never heard this question addressed to a male writer. No one ever asks: ‘What’s it like to be a man writing about sexual violence towards women?’
KYD: I’d like to talk a little bit about your earlier career, as a journalist, where you worked for 14 years on national newspapers in Glasgow and Manchester, reporting on – among other things – crime in the city and its surrounding areas.
VM: I’d just like it known that I never hacked into anyone’s phone…
KYD: [Laughs]. Good to know, Val. I’m just wondering how much your work as a journalist has informed your fiction?
VM: I think that yes, the legacy of that work is where I got the obvious ideas. I mean, I wasn’t specifically a crime reporter – I wrote all manner of things. I was based in the regional office, and so we had to deal with everything – from the local-angle stories to the background to all the serious murder cases, like the Yorkshire Ripper.
What I learnt most about my time as a journalist is not to be precious about writing. Writing is a job. As well as this, being a journalist put me into all sorts of environments I might otherwise have not encountered. I met all sorts of people from every possible walk of life, and that all provided me with this massive database of characters and situations. That has been one of the largest advantages for me – a huge range of access to characters and their experiences, and how people behave and what drives them, and how people live.
KYD: Your debut protagonist, of course, was Lindsay Gordon in her eponymous series – the investigative reporter and out lesbian; no mean feat in the mid 1980s. She has gone on to be a long-running character. But it seems to me that your more recent representation of journalists (think Bel Richmond in A Darker Domain or Penny Burgess, who’s appeared in a few books, including The Retribution) are less favourable, less sympathetic characters. These women are hard and ruthless in their pursuit of stories. Has your own attitude changed towards the journalistic profession?
VM: I think you’re reading too much into the books [laughs]. I’ve worked with many journalists over the years – many are very good journalists, many are scumbags. But I don’t think I have a particularly negative view of the profession as a whole.
KYD: Genre writing – whether it’s crime, romance or sci-fi – is often derided by the highbrow literary critics and commentators. Although it must be said that this attitude is, thankfully, changing. Here in Australia, a crime novel, Peter Temple’s Truth won our most prestigious literary prize, The Miles Franklin Award, in 2010.
VM: He’s a terrific writer.
KYD: Yes, he is. And as readers are increasingly appreciating, so much of contemporary society can be critiqued through genre fiction – often in modes of storytelling that is fresh and compelling. How do you think crime writing can best and most effectively comment on contemporary social and political debate? Are these important concerns when it comes to your own writing?
VM: I think it starts off with what your concerns are as a writer, and I think that a lot of literary writers are concerned with the literary form as a way of engaging with the readers or with the society that we live in.
When it comes to crime stories, they are by their very nature not hermetic – you can draw in any aspect, any element of society. And with a story of very serious violent crime, it doesn’t just involve the victims, it involves the friends, relatives, the police officers in charge of uncovering what went on, the media covering the crime. You can really reach out to any echelon of society, and you are able to draw any aspect of these lives. For this reason, it’s no strain of plausibility to imagine a homeless person and the prime minister appearing in the same novel.
And also there’s the argument about society: that you get the crimes that you deserve. By this I mean that the crimes come from the very heart of the society. If you look at the recent riots: we’ve become a very materialistic, celebrity-obsessed, empty society, and that’s what the riots ended up being about. You wouldn’t have had that kind of riot, even in the UK, 30 years ago – all those riots were about race.
In a way, crime writers are writing about the crimes of their time. If you look at a lot of American crime writing, a lot of it is about gun violence – which you don’t have, by and large, in the UK because of the gun laws (people still have illegal guns, but not in the same numbers).
KYD: In that vein, then, where do you see the genre heading, if indeed such a prediction can be made? What kinds of stories do you see becoming increasingly popular, or is it that an impossible question to answer?
VM: Well, I can see the trends of the genre at any given time. In the UK at the moment the younger British male writers are writing very noir, darker than the American-noir tradition, and are influenced by writers like Jim Thompson. Also, what we’re seeing are a lot of very strong narratives of psychological crime novels.
But I think what’s captured the imagination of crime readers at the moment is the foreign setting – either novels in translation or by English-speaking writers locating themselves elsewhere. M.J. McGrath’s novel White Heat, which is set in the Canadian High Arctic, is just a completely different world. Crime can happen everywhere and anywhere. I think people are perhaps more interested in the world outside their windows these days.
KYD: You’re obviously a big reader of crime. When you started your writing career, who were your influences?
VM: I think to go right back to the beginning: Robert Louis Stevenson was a huge influence on me. And it was because he could write across the spectrum – from the swashbuckling adventure of Treasure Island down to the bizarre psychological darkness of Jekyll and Hyde. And I think as a Scottish writer he had a sensibility that spoke to me as well. I think crucially, the one that got me kick-started was Sara Paretsky.
She was the first person I read who was writing about the kind of women I understood – women who are trying to live independent, feminist lives.
KYD: I was wondering if we could chat about the importance of place in your fiction? In particular, the fictional city of Bradfield and the real Scottish setting of Fife (where A Darker Domain is located), and where you grew up.
VM: Place has always been important to me, and as a reader of crime novels I’ve always admired the ability to conjure a sense of place, when you feel that you’re really there. And sometimes that’s a city, sometimes that’s a rural setting. I still shiver with cold when I think about Ruth Rendell’s (writing as Barbara Vine) No Night is Too Long, which is set in part in Alaska – those kinds of things stay with me as a reader.
Sometimes a place shouts at me to be written about. With The Place of Execution, for example, I knew when I moved to Derbyshire in 1979 – even though I wasn’t writing fiction professionally at that point – that I wanted to set a book there. But it took me a long, long time to find a story. I had the place I wanted to write about in my head, and I just had to find the story to go with it.
And so it was with A Darker Domain. I knew when I was covering the miners’ strike in 1984 as a journalist in the north of England that one day I was going to write about this place in fiction. It was much easier for me to write about where I grew up because I knew mining communities from the inside (the pit in the mining village where I grew up as a child closed down in 1967 after an explosion). I understood what it was like in a village like that; a village that had one employer, and when the employer goes, the village died in a way. I got a sense of what lay ahead of those mining communities after the end of the mining strikes. All of that was there at the back of my head, and I hoped very much to write about it one day. And these were people I cared about – those communities, the village I grew up in, the lives that the people led. It was a chance, in a way, to pay tribute to the place.
KYD: I very much enjoyed A Darker Domain for these very reasons – you evoked a great sense of the history of this mining community, while bringing the reader forward in time to the investigation of a thrilling murder-mystery. It reads as a great companion to your other books. I hope DI Karen Pirie is going to be a reoccurring character, as I thought she was a fantastic protagonist. It’s also great to be taking readers to this very different locale, so far removed from seamy Bradfield.
VM: Bradfield, in a way, has become a slight problem for me. I mean, I set the first book, Mermaids Singing, in this fictitious city because at the time I was writing we had a particularly bigoted and mad Chief Constable. I thought it would be perfectly possible that if I wrote about Greater Manchester that I would go out each morning and get a speeding ticket.
KYD: Well, it really is hard to imagine the characters existing outside of the grimy, overcast Bradfield. But in The Retribution, there’s the suggestion that they might be relocating at some point… It’s a great development.
VM: I know – what’s going to happen next?
KYD: Well, it’s now very nicely set up. I do think your readers will be quite troubled at the end of The Retribution and how everything is left off, but it’s also a great testament to the complex relationship between Tony and Carol.
VM: Well, like what you were saying earlier about Carol and her being treated brutally… What’s been interesting is that I’ve had a couple of people say to me, ‘Carol’s being so unreasonable! ’ It’s so interesting that the same characters in the same book can create such a different response in readers.
KYD: I’d like to talk now about your first books – the Lindsay Gordon series. Report for Murder, published in 1987, featured the UK’s first openly lesbian detective. Last year, you published Trick of the Dark, which received widespread critical attention and featured four lesbian characters. Things have come full circle, it would seem, with this mainstream representation of lesbian characters, and the critical focus remaining on the narrative itself rather than the characters’ sexual orientation. But it wasn’t always so – what was the initial reception to the Lindsay Gordon books back in the 1980s?
VM: Well, it was published with a resounding silence, really. It was published by the Women’s Press back in 1987, and all of their books were paperback originals. And it may seem like ancient history, but back then paperbacks just weren’t reviewed. The books pages would only ever look at hardbacks.
KYD: Is that right?
VM: Yeah. I suppose there was more attention paid to the Lindsay Gordon books retrospectively. And it’s quite funny, really. I remember doing a radio interview, much later, with this middle-aged guy, and he said to me: ‘I’ve just read one of these Lindsay Gordon books, and it’s got a lesbian in it! I’ve never read a lesbian book in my life. And it’s really good!’
KYD: [Laugh]. Oh God, yeah. As though that was such a shock.
VM: That really cracked me up. But the truth is, if I hadn’t written A Trick of the Dark off the back of a successful career, I don’t know if it would have necessarily been snapped up so readily.
KYD: Do you think the representation of lesbian characters has changed from when you first published Lindsay Gordon?
VM: It definitely has changed. In terms of mainstream literature, we’re lucky here in the UK at the moment that we have a whole swathe of terrific writers who happen to be lesbians. Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, Louise Welsh, Charlotte Mendelson, Ali Smith, Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay – I could go on. There does seem to be a genuine openness in UK publishing. I think it’s really become critical mass as there are so many of us writing so well.
It’s a very different situation in America. I’m struggling to think of a single writer in America of national standing, apart from Patricia Cornwell, who’s an out lesbian. It’s not part of their culture – and Cornwell was dragged kicking and screaming out of the closet.
KYD: So I guess we can attribute this shift not only to the quality of the new work produced by writers who are lesbians, but also to a more profound social shift in the UK and UK publishing, which is yet to manifest in US society?
VM: Yeah, well you only need to see that in civil partnerships. There’s a whole range of issues that have changed the fabric of our lives over here in the UK. I think there’s a maturity in what we’re writing, too – we’re not writing ‘coming out’ stories any more. Lesbians are writing all sorts of novels – some focus on lesbian lives, others do not.
KYD: And this quality of storytelling – this is something you’re very conscious of? To make this the focus of your work, rather than any politicised element of lesbian representation?
VM: Yeah, I didn’t have an agenda. And I think if you start with an agenda, you write a bad book.
KYD: Val, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much for taking time out of your morning to talk to Kill Your Darlings.
VM: Thanks very much.