I discovered Val McDermid when I read the stand-alone, PLACE OF EXECUTION. It is one of the rare books that survived translation into a television production that equaled the punch of the book. From there, I read most of the books in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series about a criminal profiler and a police detective. This series was enhanced by the casting of Robson Green in the television version.
My daughter came across this article in the August 12, 2011 edition of the guardian.co.uk
Val McDermid: a life in writing
‘The phone rang one evening when I was watching TV so I said tell whoever it is to call back in 20 minutes. Twenty minutes later, Gordon Brown rang’
Accompanying Val McDermid around the small seaside town where she lives in Northumbria is not a straightforward affair. Driving back from the station we are flagged down by the post van and she is informed that a parcel has arrived for her. In the tiny high street she is stopped and asked details of a quiz night. Inside the pub she is genially accosted as to when a Woman’s Hour item will be broadcast. It’s no surprise that she is popular. She is a bestselling writer, a gregarious personality and a much-loved figure on the crime-writing scene. But it is nevertheless inescapable that she appears to live in one of those improbably picturesque English towns whose close-knit rural idyll is, as we have learned from countless crime stories, periodically disturbed by a gruesome murder or two. In fact, exactly the sort of place she was partly responsible for consigning to the dustbin of crime fiction history when she emerged in the 1980s as part of a new wave of socially and politically aware writers.
“The actors did a great job,” she later jokes. “That’s the beauty of living in the north where there is such high unemployment. You can get them really cheap.” But she says that when she started out in the mid 80s, “British crime fiction largely did comprise of either village mysteries or police procedurals. Apart from Ruth Rendell’s non-Wexford books, there was very little else going on.”
McDermid’s contribution to breaking that mould came via her cynical, socialist, lesbian journalist, Lindsay Gordon. In the years since, McDermid has made the transition from enfant terrible to grande dame, and is about to publish her 25th book, The Retribution, a seventh outing for detective Carol Jordan and criminal psychologist Tony Hill, who have been brought to a huge audience via the TV series Wire in the Blood. The book will be launched next week at the Edinburgh book festival, where McDermid is one of the most sought-after names.
“It was a bit unimaginable when I began that I’d ever get to 25 books,” she concedes. “But it was also unimaginable how much crime-writing would have changed. In hindsight, I can see that several things happened at the same time. Literary fiction in the UK became very interested in critical theory and lost its relationship with narrative and, to an extent, with the reader. It stopped taking them on a journey from a beginning to a middle to an end. But there were still a lot of young writers who wanted to tell those stories and a lot of us turned to genre where the narrative arc still held true. And these writers also wanted to keep themselves interested, so there were lots of ideas about how to use the crime novel differently.”
She also remembers a new wave of feminist crime fiction – Sarah Paretsky, Sue Grafton – had just arrived in the UK, as had work by lesbian writers such as Barbara Wilson, Katherine V Forrest and Mary Wings. “And that interested British indie publishing houses in the kind of book I was writing. Two years before, there would have been no market. Five years after, the market would have been saturated. I was in the right place at the right time with the right book.”
It was the beginning of a hugely successful career, both critically and commercially. Her first Jordan and Hill novel, The Mermaids Singing, won the Crime Writers Association Golden Dagger in 1995, and in 2010 she was awarded the Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement. But success has also manifested itself in other ways. At Stark’s Park, home of Raith Rovers, there is the McDermid Stand, in recognition of her financial support for the club during a crisis a few years back. “But you’ll notice it’s not the ‘Val McDermid‘ stand,” she explains. “In part that’s because it’s also my tribute to my father and his love for the club. But it also says something about my background. There’s a saying in Fife, ‘Ah ken her faither’, I knew her father. It means don’t get above yourself, we know where you come from.” Adopting exaggerated outrage, she says: “She might be an international lesbian cultural icon, but she’s still just Jim McDermid’s lassie here.”
McDermid was born in Kirkcaldy in 1955, “an only child in a very ordinary working-class family. We weren’t dirt poor but there was no spare money kicking around. While it was very much understood that the way to a better life was through education, books were a luxury we couldn’t afford. But when I was six we actually moved opposite the central library, and that became my home from home.”
She was included in an educational experiment – one that Gordon Brown had also participated in – to fast track gifted children. So at the age of 16 she found herself travelling south with her navy blue cardboard suitcase for an interview at Oxford. “But there was a cognitive dissonance in that while we were told ‘go get a life’, there was also a sense that being, say, a doctor or a lawyer, wasn’t for the likes of us. Bright people from Kirkcaldy went to St Andrews or Edinburgh universities, but then they came home. That was never going to work for me.”
As a teenage revolutionary with a fascination for the early-70s counter culture, McDermid “wanted to be in England”, despite her only experience of it being a week’s holiday in Blackpool. “But in one of the more bizarre examples of literature influencing life I was guided by the Chalet School books, which I loved. It is through these that I realised that being a writer was actually a job. And all these girls went on to higher education at either the Sorbonne, the Kensington school of Needlework, or Oxford.” When St Hilda’s college offered her a place, she was the first child they had taken from a Scottish state school. “I said it was about time. But Oxford wasn’t in the slightest snobbish. People genuinely didn’t care about your background, they were interested in your mind. I even got into Benazir Bhutto’s 21st birthday party by some bizarre accident”.
When she was a teenager, her sense of alienation was “probably to do with my sexuality, although I didn’t realise that at the time. I thought it was because I wanted to be a writer, and writers were supposed to be a bit weird. The social politics at home were radical, but the gender politics were firmly fixed in the 1800s. Of course we had heard of the phenomenon of lesbians, but it was always somebody’s cousin who had actually seen one. I read The Well of Loneliness and thought that I’m obviously not a lesbian because I didn’t want to wear a man’s suit or be called Stephen. But at Oxford I read Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and it completely blew me away. Then I got my heart broken, discovered other lesbians – and that was my life from then on.”
After University McDermid became a trainee journalist in Plymouth, where a failed first novel was translated into a staged first play. She then worked for two years in the Daily Record in Glasgow before getting a job as a reporter on the Sunday People in Manchester, one of just three women out of 137 journalists. McDermid is aghast at the current hacking allegations. “I’m not trying to make us sound whiter than white, but we really didn’t go in for anything like that. You only lied about who you were when under cover turning over a villain. I used skills and wiles to get a quote. My classic way of getting into a house when there was a pack of guys outside was to ask to use the toilet. Very few people will say no to a woman who needs to go to the toilet. And once you’re in you have something, even if it is only what the wallpaper or carpet is like.”
She covered the Yorkshire Ripper case and the aftermath of the Moors murders. The People won acclaim for campaigns to expose experimenting on animals – the smoking beagles – and abuse in old people’s homes. “But sometime in the mid-1980s the paper followed the News of the World into the gutter, which was the point I realised I had to start digging the tunnel. The real low point came when I found myself sitting outside Julie Goodyear’s house” – barmaid Bet Lynch from Coronation Street – “at six o’clock in the morning waiting to see who came out of the back door. That was not why I became a journalist.”
McDermid still exhibits a nostalgic fondness for the old-fashioned local hack nagging at the case in her novels. And it was no coincidence that Lindsay Gordon was a journalist in Report for Murder (1987). “But within the lesbian community there was always a little tension about me working for tabloids. And being published by the Women’s Press could sometimes feel slightly like being dragged in front of the central committee. And then in the third book, when the murderer was a lesbian, I got a lot of stick for ‘giving succour to our enemies’. But my books have never been about being a lesbian. I’ve never wanted to live in a ghetto or write in a ghetto. I want to write about a world that reflects the one most people live in. Gay people are just one aspect of that.”
When she left Women’s Press for HarperCollins to write a new series there were allegations of selling out. “I wrote the Kate Brannigan books for a cluster of reasons. Yes, I wanted to make some money to help me get out of newspapers. But I also wanted to write something outside of my skin. Could I write a first-person novel about a wisecracking heterosexual private eye from Manchester? Could I make the private eye novel work in the UK? And there was a political element. When crime readers find someone they like they immediately search out the backlist. I figured there was no better way to get those Lindsay Gordon books to a wider audience, a straight audience if you like, than by writing a successful mainstream novel, and to some degree that has worked. Every year I make more money from Report for Murder than I did in the year it came out.”
So in 1991, armed with a small advance and a redundancy cheque from the People, McDermid became a full-time writer. Dead Beat was published in 1992 and was followed by five more Kate Brannigan books. In 1995 McDermid turned to Carol Jordan and Tony Hill for what was intended as a standalone novel because “I had this fantastic idea for a serial killer novel but journalists and private eyes don’t solve serial murders”. The Mermaids Singing was followed by The Wire in the Blood – a quote from TS Eliot – and McDermid was launched into a mainstream audience that has brought many honours, including that stand at Raith.
“The phone rang one evening while I was watching TV so I said tell whoever it is to call back in 20 minutes. Twenty minutes later Gordon Brown, then chancellor of the exchequer, called back. At the end of the conversation I’d put my hand in my pocket and said to him if he got that much money out of me so quickly how come he hadn’t solved poverty yet. But the Rovers were a big part of my growing up. My father was a scout, and I’d get dragged along to watch miners and shipyard workers kicking the shit out of each other on asphalt pitches. So when my son walked out on to the pitch as a mascot he was the fourth generation of the family to support the club.”
McDermid has shared custody of Cameron, 10, from her previous relationship and now lives with American publisher Kelly Smith. They have been together seven years and entered into a civil partnership in 2006. Stories she told to Cameron have formed the basis of her first children’s book, My Granny Is a Pirate, which is aimed at three- to four-year-olds and will be published in the new year. “It’s been fun, but there is a certain amount of political correctness around writing for children. I wanted one character to tell another a secret and then say, ‘don’t say I told you, she’ll kill me if she knew’, but you’re not allowed to say words like ‘kill’ or ‘dead’. Which, of course is not something I’m that used to.”
She says she is still fascinated by crime-writing and is grateful for having been able to “ride the current that has allowed me to experiment with form and structure over the years”. She is active in supporting the genre in general and young writers in particular. “When I began there were writers who were supportive of me. So I try to put something back, but it also stimulates my own interests. Before I started writing I read things like Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder, which was about the genre. I care about how it works and develops, and there is now this incredible variety of crime-writing available to me that simply wasn’t available to the generation before me.” So wide is the latitude that she has even written a radio series, to be broadcast on Radio 4 next week, featuring murders in a Northumbrian village. “I can have an idea for a story and then decide what is the best way to tell it. I don’t have to shoehorn it into a detective fiction format. Even after 25 books I don’t feel any slackening of interest or desire to write. In some ways that’s a relief, but after all these years it still feels like more of a thrill.”