The Scottish crime writer Val McDermid should be over the moon. As we meet in a London café, Time magazine in the US has just unveiled its prestigious list of “The 100 Best Mystery and Thriller Books of All Time” – and McDermid’s 1999 novel A Place Of Execution is on it. But for McDermid, fresh off the train from Edinburgh, something has soured her celebratory mood.
Her friend Nicola Sturgeon, the former Scottish First Minister, congratulated her on X (previously known as Twitter).
“And so my timeline today has been full of vileness. People respond to Nicola’s most innocuous tweets with horrible abuse,” she reveals. It’s a reminder how much “vitriol and misogyny” women in the public eye have to put up with, she tells me. “I tend not to get much trolling on my own account, though. My son says it’s because people are scared of me.”
McDermid, 68, certainly gives the impression of someone it would be unwise to get on the wrong side of.
Her nickname, in the days when she was a tabloid journalist, was “Killer” – “because if I went out to get the story, if it was possible to get, it would be got.”
As an interviewee, though, she’s warm, funny and forthcoming – and even a little apprehensive about how her new crime thriller, Past Lying, will be received.
“Some people in the crime fiction world will not like it,” she tells me.
Past Lying centres on the friendship between two crime novelists – one successful and one not – and how circumstances change so that they end up switching places at the opposite ends of the bestseller lists. Their rivalry results in murder.
“Already people are trying to map these characters on to real writers,” McDermid says with a groan. “But honest to God, they are not meant to be real people. I’m not taking a pop at anybody.”
It seems unlikely, though, that she will be besieged by crime novelists complaining about being caricatured when she next attends the AGM of the Crime Writers’ Association.
As established, she can be scary. But besides that, every crime novelist I’ve ever spoken to adores her.
She uses her formidable fighting spirit to champion the crime genre in the face of snooty critics, and to support other writers. Within the crime community, she’s regarded as the head of profession: the Queen of Crime.
Her novel does seem to imply that most writers are a bit nuts, I tell her.
“Well, let’s face it, we spend a lot of our time in our heads with people who don’t exist, in a universe where we are God and nothing happens unless we let it. In different circumstances we’d be treated for mental health problems.”
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Past Lying is a cracking read, due not least to the return of the wonderful cold case investigator DCI Karen Pirie, whom McDermid has been writing about for 20 years.
The ITV drama Karen Pirie, adapted from her books, was a big success last year and is returning for a second series.
“I think Lauren Lyle absolutely captures the spirit of Karen Pirie. She’s got that Scottish word ‘gallus’, which means brass neck with a bit of swagger and not letting anybody tell her what to do.”
Karen’s relentlessness in pursuit of injustice is explained by her upbringing in a working-class family in Fife – something she shares with McDermid herself.
“That area was industrialised and unionised and it was a very strong community and people did genuinely pull together. It’s not like that any more, but it’s the world that I grew up in and Karen grew up in, and I guess that gave her her values of sympathy and empathy for victims, people who are done down by the system.”
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McDermid studied English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford – the college’s first ever student from a Scottish state school. With her pugnacious personality, she laughs as she recalls her tutor encouraging her to apply to the Foreign Office after graduation: “Can you imagine the state this country would be in? We’d be fighting with everybody!”
Instead she became a journalist with the Daily Record in Glasgow and later the Sunday People in Manchester.
Her recent series of crime novels about journalist Allie Burns draw heavily on her experiences in the Seventies and Eighties. The books bring alive a smoky milieu of misogynistic journalists bullying the tiny number of women in the profession. Was it really that bad?
“Yes, but I didn’t let them get away with it. My Dad brought me up with the view that I was as good as anybody else and I should let no man be my master and that I should stand up for myself.
“I made sure these guys knew they didn’t have any right to push me around. I think I was good at journalism, and by the time Robert Maxwell closed down his newspaper interests in Manchester I was the last one standing, which really upset the guys.”
Bizarrely, she was once beaten up by the celebrity wrestler Big Daddy after doorstepping him.
“Afterwards I had a phone call from a contact of mine, a retired armed robber, and he said: ‘I’m gonna get the boys to go round with the baseball bats and sort him out.’ I said, please, no violence. He thought for a minute, then he said: ‘He loves going to the casinos in Manchester, I’ve got contacts, I’m going to get him barred from all of them.’ And he did. Much more effective.”
All the time she was working as a journalist, McDermid was writing fiction. Her first crime novel, Report For Murder, was published in 1987.
Her career built slowly. One of her earliest reviews came from one of her aunts: “Aye, I read one of your books, didnae think much to it.” Today she has sold 19 million copies and is translated into 40 languages, but such a future was unimaginable for a long time.
She had her breakthrough in the Nineties as part of the wave of interest in the “Tartan Noir” school of Scottish crime writers.
“We were doing something different to English crime fiction at the time – we had a sense of darkness, a Presbyterian concern with the balance of good and evil. One of the things that linked us as writers – myself, Ian Rankin, Chris Brookmyre, Denise Mina – was the black humour, which is a very Scottish thing. It’s not been a good funeral unless you’ve had a good laugh.”
The more sensitive critics have blanched at the graphic descriptions of violence towards women in her novels. “Yes, but that’s really only in one strand of my writing, the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series.”
Those novels, featuring a clinical psychologist who studies serial killers, were the basis of the popular ITV drama Wire In The Blood, starring Robson Green as Dr Tony Hill.
“Those books are violent because I’m dealing directly with the nature of violence, how contaminating it is, how it destroys lives. When men stop being violent to us women, I’ll stop writing about it.”
Another Scottish crime writer, MC Beaton – creator of Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin – also started out as a tabloid journalist, among other roles as Women’s Editor of the Daily Express; she once told me she wrote light, cosy crime fiction because she’d seen enough darkness in her day job.
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But the dark things McDermid saw pushed her writing in the opposite direction, it seems. “Yes. I can’t stop the darkness but I can maybe make people aware of it.” She is speaking more softly now, looking troubled by memories.
McDermid – who lives in Edinburgh with her wife Jo Sharp (and has a 22-year-old son, Cameron, from a previous relationship) – seems highly driven to me. This is her 38th novel, in addition to several non-fiction books. She is also a busy broadcaster: she never seems to be off Radio 4.“I don’t think I am driven. I just love what I do,” she insists.
Ian Rankin often takes a year off between books these days: might she? “What would I do? I can’t play Assassin’s Creed for a whole year. And I’ve got a band to think about.”
Ah yes, the band: The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, in which McDermid is a vocalist, alongside other musically minded authors such as Mark Billingham. Formed in 2016, it’s been so successful that they’ve even played Glastonbury. “It’s been an absolute joy.”
“I hadn’t imagined this was how I’d be spending my 60s, but I used to sing in folk clubs when I was younger and I hadn’t really admitted to myself how much I’d missed it.
“There’s a real bond between us now which you don’t get when you just know each other as writers. I’m the den mother
McDermid is also a key player at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, which she co-founded in 2003. At this year’s festival in July, Nicola Sturgeon was seen alongside McDermid in what these days has become a rare public appearance.
“She came because she loves crime fiction, and she wanted to start coming out and re-entering the world, which has been difficult for her. She’s no longer got consistent police protection, and there are a lot of bams out there.”
Allegations of Sturgeon’s financial misconduct “are just a way of neutralising the SNP’s strongest weapon. She’s absolutely adamant she’s done nothing wrong”.
I wonder if McDermid, who is strongly pro Scottish independence, would ever accept an honour from the British government; after all, Ian Rankin is Sir Ian these days.
“I’ve said no to offers that have been made,” she replies.
Why? “First of all, my partner is a postcolonial geographer: I can’t possibly accept something that says ‘British Empire’.
“And it annoys me that although Ian is
Sir and so Miranda [his wife] becomes Lady, if I become a Dame, Jo will become nothing.
“And then at my back I can hear my father: he might be proud that I’d been asked but he’d be furious with me if I said yes.”
And she might feel compromised when speaking her mind about “that shower in Downing Street”, she adds. “If you take their baubles you might start feeling it’s not polite to kick them in the balls.”
● Past Lying by Val McDermid (Little, Brown, £22) is out now. Visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop
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