Val McDermid: The dying game

Val McDermid talks to Jane Jakeman about murder, torture and 'tartan noir'.
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The Independent Culture

'I seem to have an instinct for dangerous living,' said Val McDermid. It didn't feel that way. We were comfortably ensconced in the luxurious armchairs of a discreet hotel lounge, well insulated from the bustle of nearby Covent Garden. The warmth and hilarity of McDermid's company came across vividly when I replayed the interview tape which was punctuated with bursts of laughter and the tinkling of ice cubes.

So whence the dangerous living? Perhaps it's because McDermid has never balked at anything life has thrown at her. Born into a Scottish mining family, she got to St Hilda's College, Oxford, one of the youngest students they had ever taken, and the first from a Scottish state school. "I've come a very long way from St Hilda's College. I've come even further from being a wee lassie from a mining community in Fife. I've been very fortunate - my life has provided me with a series of opportunities to grow and develop and change and I think, because of my background, I've regarded the opportunities as precisely that - something to grip by the throat and suck every possible piece of information from. I think I have an appetite for life and an appetite for experience.''

That included stints as a journalist in Glasgow and Manchester, when very few women worked in newsrooms. There was no gentle initiation. "I was sent out on the very first day I arrived at the Daily Record in Glasgow to pick up photographs of four teenagers who had died in a car crash.'' But she stuck it out and became Mother of the Chapel. "I was called 'Killer' - I had a run-in with the deputy news editor and gave as good as I got. I was a good tabloid hack but had to join the domino school. Fortunately I had a tremendous talent at dominoes - I was the Dominoes Queen, and when you can actually drink the guys under the table they develop a certain respect for you.''

McDermid attributes her conviviality to her father, (''the life and soul of the party'') but has an acute perception of divisions in the Scottish national character with regard to sociability and enjoyment. On "tartan noir'', the recent Scottish school of crime-writing represented by such writers as Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and McDermid herself, she thinks it has its roots in Scotland's movement towards self-determination. "We didn't find ourselves in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, nor in the American one of Chandler and Hammett. Our tradition is much darker, with psychological mainsprings and black humour -- it comes from writers like James Hogg and R L Stevenson, and what Hugh MacDiarmid called the Caledonian antisyzgy.''

Beg pardon? "Great word for Scrabble. It means two badly yoked forces pulling against each other - the Puritan Calvinism and the wild Gaelic urge to party, the sense we're enjoying ourselves now but we'll pay for it later.''

McDermid sees the dynamics of her own work with extraordinary clarity. "When I was a reporter I worked on some big cases, the Ripper murders, the Moors murders, but I was intrigued by the effects of crimes on the lives around them, rather than the criminals themselves. I've never found true crime particularly inspirational or interesting - it's generally pretty banal. The perpetrator is caught not because of brilliant detectional or psychological insight but because somebody stumbled across something. It seldom has the satisfaction of a constructed shape. I have a slightly queasy feeling about using real cases because they affect real lives. It's treading on the borderlines of exploitation of people's pain. As a journalist there are often times when you are driven by the story but as a human being you wonder what you are doing.''

I asked her about her latest book, The Distant Echo (HarperCollins, £17.99), which begins with a woman found dying by a group of students. Is this based on a real event?

"Only very loosely. I heard a story about the son of some friends who was with a group of friends who came across a youth who was being beaten up. They chased off the attackers and went back to help the guy who was lying on the ground. When the police turned up they made the initial assumption that the students were the perpetrators of the attack. Luckily the guy who was on the ground was conscious and able to tell the police these were the good guys. It came into my mind: what would have happened if he'd been lying dead on the ground?''

The originality of the book lies not only in this concept, but in its study of the reverberations of that crime over the next 25 years, the effects on the lives of the students themselves as they become adults, on the victim's own family and on the police involved in the original investigation. It's a departure from many of McDermid's previous works, and not following any of the crime series she has created, such as those featuring the policewoman Kate Brannigan or the psychological profiler, Dr Tony Hill, played in the recent television adaptation of McDermid's Wire in the Blood by Robson Green. "The protagonists in this story are just ordinary guys - they're caught up in something beyond their control. The elucidation, the unravelling, had to come from their characters, from who they were, what they were capable of. In order to find that out, it has to be much more a novel of character than a novel of process. For me it was a matter of developing those characters and bringing them to the reader as fully formed as I could make them so that they would understand why these things happened in the way that they do.''

She doesn't directly use her own life in books, though she has never made any secret of the fact that she is gay and does explore the lesbian scene in her Lindsay Gordon books. She is more reticent about her two-year-old son. "I feel he's entitled to his privacy.'' But since she's become a mother there has been an undoubted change in her books, a deepening of moral awareness, an understanding of the consequences of events on the next generation, which is a major theme in The Distant Echo. "I think you do change when you have a child, you look at the world in a different way. You have a sense not only of their vulnerability but of your own: it changes the way you see the world. Someone puts a new-born baby into your arms and you would have to have a heart of stone not to respond - it's inbuilt. And as a writer, everything that changes you, everything that happens of significance in your life, matters to you. Writers cannibalise everything. We eat everyone else's lives and when we've finished we eat our own. Your friends tell you about some terrible thing that's happened to them, the human being in you is genuinely sympathetic and the writer in you is going, 'that is absolutely fantastic - I'm going to have that!' There's the life lived, and then there's the life examined.''

Some of her books have been criticised for featuring undue amounts of torture and violence. "I feel there was a slew of books in the Nineties, serial-killer novels, where the victims were there purely to be abused or dismembered. They were just ciphers, and the violence was written about in a way that made people flinch. There's nothing sexy about it, it's degrading, it's horrible, it defiles everyone it touches, everyone who comes into contact with it. I know there's a very narrow line between writing about it directly and being gratuitous about it, but I think the violence in my books is functional - it has a purpose within it. It tells us about the mind of the killer.''

But why, given McDermid's huge natural cheeriness, does she write crime fiction at all? "I don't feel any need to go beyond the genre - it's so full of possibilities. I was planning a book last year, I'd got all the way through, and no one was DEAD! I thought, well, they've just got to die, that's the only satisfactory conclusion. With death, the stakes are higher, the ante has been upped - I'm not sure I can get away from that kind of adrenalin rush. Death means people really have something to care about, something to fight for.''


Val Mcdermid was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1955. She was accepted to read English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, at 16. After graduating, she worked as a journalist for 14 years in Glasgow and Manchester. Her first crime novel, Report for Murder, featuring the lesbian sleuth Lindsay Gordon was published in 1984. This was followed by a string of novels which included two other crime series, creating policewoman Kate Brannigan and crime profiler Tony Hill. In 1995 The Mermaids Singing won the Crime Writers' Association Macallan Gold Dagger Award. Other notable books include The Wire in the Blood (1997), recently televised starring Robson Green and Hermione Norris, Killing the Shadows (2000) and The Last Temptation (2002). With a departure from these series, A Place of Execution, (2000), she won the coveted US Anthony Award, the Macavity Award for Best Crime Novel and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Val McDermid lives in Manchester with her partner, two-year old son and three cats.