'When someone dies, I want people to care'

The 'Wire in the Blood' killer is back, but his creator Val McDermid tells Danuta Kean there is more to her work than violent crime
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The Independent Culture

You are walking alone down a dark street, the moon a sliver in the sky, when you hear footsteps tap, tap, tap behind you.

How you react, claims the crime writer Val McDermid, is determined by gender: "A woman would think, 'Oh my God, I am going to be raped.' A man walking on his own late at night probably doesn't even bat an eyelid."

For McDermid, who is now the author of 25 books – including her latest, The Retribution, the seventh in her Carol Jordan and Tony Hill series – the reason that women love violent crime fiction is that our potential victimhood is inculcated in us from childhood. This is why she was angry about the furore ("Lazy reportage," she sniffs) that engulfed her after Ian Rankin told me in an interview for this newspaper that women, and lesbians in particular, write the "most violent" crime. To an author in the vanguard of British female hard-boiled crime writers, the misogyny unleashed by his reported comments said everything about society's inability to see women as more than victims. "Presumably we should be out minding the children and writing nice little Agatha Christies," she sneers.

Weariness creeps into the voice of the 56-year-old former tabloid bureau chief. Misogyny and homophobia she expects from the media; badly-researched journalism rankles.

"One of the things that pisses me off about the whole argument is that I have now become the poster girl for writing violent crime fiction – and I don't." The violence in McDermid's novels, especially the Hill and Jordan cycle, can be graphic, but it is not titillating. Her victims are fleshed-out individuals, not bodies raped, mutilated and strewn across highways like junk food debris.

It is hard to imagine anyone further from a poster girl than McDermid. A deep-voiced daughter of Fife, she is a short, solid presence with tight-cropped grey hair and ruddy cheeks that soften the hard-water blue of her eyes. She is dressed in a baggy, oyster-blue T-shirt and shorts in an orange that makes my eyes wince, her style appearing to have little evolved since 1974, judging by a picture of her in flares and floppy hat on her website.

There is nothing of the hippy in her writing, however, which remains taut and unflinching. In The Retribution, criminal psychologist Hill and DCI Jordan are back on the trail of Jacko Vance, the charismatic sports and TV star and serial killer of The Wire in the Blood. He has escaped from prison with a head full of vengeance and heart full of malice. As in all her novels, McDermid creates a brooding tension that allows readers to get close to characters whose lives are about to be ripped apart. "When somebody dies, I want the reader to care about that character," she says.

It was the slew of gratuitously violent novels coming out of the United States in the Nineties, following Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs, that led McDermid to write the first Hill and Jordan novel, The Mermaids Singing, published in 1995. It followed four books featuring the gay hack Lindsay Gordon and three featuring the straight private eye Kate Brannigan. She has since written five more featuring these two leads, and a further five stand-alone novels and two short-story collections. "When I started off, I thought I had maybe four or five books in me," she jokes.

Her rate of output has earned her the label "Queen of Crime", but seated beside me in the rose garden of her alma mater, St Hilda's College, Oxford, she looks more like the genre's gobby shop steward. She is at the college to present a paper at a crime and mystery writers' conference, and walks through a crowd of adoring fans with the ease of a landowner surveying his estates. I cannot work out whether it is the setting or the subject matter that makes her so relaxed – although I note a wistfulness creep into her voice when she recalls her arrival at St Hilda's as a working-class 17-year-old from a Scottish state school.

After Oxford, she trained as a journalist, ending up as the Northern bureau chief of The People. Her boss was Colin Myler, the final editor of the News of the World, which is now mired in hacking allegations. Watching the scandal around that newspaper unfold has brought McDermid a level of satisfaction. The two had a poor relationship: "For the first six months he didn't give me any stories. He would rather have me sitting there doing nothing than doing the job." It is a bitter memory.

But tabloid news reporting left her with a ferocious work ethic. As well as working on forthcoming books and touring, she has just finished guest editing the autumn issue of Mslexia, the feminist magazine for women writers (for which I am the books editor). Her decision to take the role reflects her commitment to new writers. Each year at the Harrogate Crime Festival, she presents a panel of debut writers. It's a generous act from someone who is so established. "I am excited by what crime has become in the past 10 years; the expansiveness of it," she explains.

Among those McDermid has supported in the past is Mark Billingham, writer of the Tom Thorne series. I have heard she plans to sing "Jackson" with him at the forthcoming World Mystery Convention in St Louis, playing June Carter Cash to Billingham's Johnny Cash: "We did have a discussion about who's going to sing Johnny's part because there's some debate about who could get lower," she chuckles. I ask if she will be wearing gingham. Pulling her stocky frame up to its full height, she gives me a sharp look. "I am not going to turn into Dolly Parton," she says with Presbyterian indignation, then her eyes twinkle and she throws back her head, releasing a laugh as deep as a Scottish loch.

The Retribution, By Val McDermid (Little, Brown £18.99)

'Always arriving after the fact grew harder to bear the longer she did the job. She wished Tony was with her, and not just because he would read the scene differently from her. He understood her desire to prevent episodes like this, events that shredded people's lives and left them with gaping holes in the fabric of the day-to-day.'