“I write the books that shout loudest in my head.” Northern Soul talks to crime author Val McDermid
If you were to set a murder mystery in Harrogate then its crime writing festival would offer the perfect setting for a puckish postmodern whodunnit.
Legions of book fans with murder in mind descend on a sun-kissed spa town at the height of summer, each of them reflections in a great public hall of mirrors, each secretly longing to step through the glass into the fictional domain – should one of their number just happen to fall victim to a laced bun at Betty’s Tea Room, a tampered thermostat at the Turkish Baths or a lethal spade-whipping in the grounds of one of the town’s famed ornamental gardens.
This is where Agatha Christie fled, of course, back in 1926…right here, in fact, to where today’s festival-goers make their pilgrimage-of-sorts, to the ivy-decked Old Swan Hotel. In shock at her poisoned marriage, her deluxe Morris Cowley perched abandoned at the top of a quarry, the heartsick fugitive checked in 200 miles away under the name of her husband’s mistress. The best-selling novelist in history – bar none – and the whole nation searching for her, high and low. In a way, they still are, of course. They never stopped. That lust for blood-letting, for life-taking, for the last taboo, and for the rare person who can serve it all up like cold meats on a guest house buffet table, there is your definitive mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.
When I visited, the hotel’s long and listless ballroom was as packed as the public galleries at the climax of a celebrity snuff trial, as Val McDermid (the woman they sometimes forgetfully call the modern-day ‘Queen of Crime’) and host/pal Nicola Sturgeon traded quips about politics, football and forensics before hundreds of paying murder enthusiasts. Such a congregation is a sight to behold: acres of bums on seats, video screens to relay the repartee to the straggler murder fans at the back, a great reminder of where the money and the demographics are in books.
The next morning, stirring her tea in the comparative oasis of an empty lounge (“yes, this is where Karl Marx and Noel Coward devised their musical version of The Communist Manifesto” she deadpans when I make the inevitable reference to our location), the festival all packed-up and gone, the Scots author reflects wryly on the success of an event she co-founded, in light of metropolitan prejudices she co-smashed and the ten-million-plus sales she’s racked up since her debut, Report For Murder, in 1987.
“I remember having conversations with publishers,” she says of the struggle to get the festival off the ground. “[affects horsey accent] ‘But it’s in the North!’ Will people want to travel that far?’” It had been the same horse when she started out in crime writing. “I can recall going down to London, and my editor was dubious. ‘Will people want to read books about the North?’”
Well, yes they did, as history shows. And as evidenced by the explosion in regional crime fiction which accompanied McDermid’s own entry to the scene in the late 80s and early 90s, when the likes of Rebus, Charlie Resnick and Dalziel & Pascoe blazed a trail for ginnel-ready gumshoes courtesy of authors Ian Rankin, John Harvey and Reginald Hill.
What’s kept McDermid at the top of the game for so long is a mercurial facility for bringing contrasting series to life, from the right-on reckonings of journo Lindsay Gordon to the hardboiled escapades of Manc PI Kate Brannigan, and the gothic horrors picked apart by profiler Tony Hill to the cold case conundrums unravelled by dogged DCI Karen Pirie. Meanwhile, McDermid has somehow known when to keep the plates spinning and when to let them drop.
All of which is to ignore the half dozen or so standalone novels she has under her belt, arguably comprising some of her finest work.
“I write the books that shout loudest in my head,” is how she puts it.
It was the American author and innovator Sara Paretsky who opened McDermid’s eyes to the possibilities of women’s detective fiction with the Chicago-set VI Warshawski series, back in the 80s. The ambition to be a writer predated that by a long way, of course. Raised in Kirkcaldy (her father was the football scout who unearthed Scots legend Jim Baxter), she read ferociously as a child, won a place at Oxford to study English, before settling in Manchester in 1979 at the northern bureau for The People newspaper.
“It was in the days when The People had a reputation for investigative journalism, and to be honest the city was in a pretty poor state,” she recalls. “It got worse because Thatcher went through the North of England with a scythe. But what I liked about it was that it felt like a welcoming place. I liked the sense of solidarity. That ‘kick one and we all limp’ philosophy as it was once enunciated to me by Julie Goodyear.”
On the testimony of a fellow journalist one might have expected a bruiser, a force of nature, and no doubt she can be those things. But like the East Kilbridian Kirsty Young there’s refined treacle in the voice, and a faultlessness to her manners. As the conversation unfolds the person who reveals herself is the kind of keenly motivated operator who is given to high achievement; an experienced hand whose hinterland encompasses the darkness of Hillsborough and Lockerbie, for whom the trial of a long publicity interview is a walk in the park she’s more than happy to endure.
Serving her apprenticeship as a freewheeling hack in a pre-Madchester, post-industrial playground she soon found herself the nexus for all manner of after-hours intrigue; and just as she did, she was able to get her first Lindsay Gordon mysteries published by The Women’s Press.
“There was quite a vibrant demi-monde. A sort of crossover between the music scene, the football scene and the gangsters. It was in people’s houses mostly but also in Applejacks and The Haçienda. I was a lesbian journalist in a very male culture, but I had friends who were lawyers, I had friends who were criminals, and they’d tell you stories. There was a badge of pride in it.
“One guy who’d been involved with the Quality Street mob ran a gang of shoplifters, and there was a book where I referenced his activities. And he came in the Little Alex one night. ‘I’ve got your book! I’m in it! Can you sign it for me!’ People were very open…villains telling you how they pulled off a long firm fraud. I was surprised by that level of trust.”
She’d have been juggling newspapers with novel writing to this day, she reckons, if she hadn’t learned very quickly to evolve. Her heroine – much like herself – was a lefty lesbian journo with a feminist chip on her shoulder. McDermid’s best crack at supporting herself through book writing, she well knew, lay in shucking off the autobiography and joining the ranks of the mainstream. She found a stepping-stone route to the big time through successive reconfigurations of the crime genre, each of which have been forged in the landscape of the North.
First, in 1992, came the Brannigan series: a hardboiled Warshawski-style PI with a crushing caseload, a guy-next-door love arrangement and a zinger rarely far from her lips. The Manc-based ‘tec chased up missing rock musicians (Dead Beat, 1992), diced with deadly drug barons (Crack Down, 1994) and in her showbizzy curtain call (Star Struck, 1998) solved an on-set soap opera slaying (“That one came from hanging out with the Corrie cast. We did a buy-up with Liz Dawn so I was minding her for a couple of weeks, just accumulating stuff…”). The pacey 250-pagers were enough for the author to quit the day job and go full time.
With the Silence-of-the-Lambs-style The Mermaids Singing in 1995 came the character she’s best known for: Tony Hill, the twitchy psychological profiler with just a smidgen in common with his subjects. As backdrop for Tony’s slow dance with police liaison officer Carol Jordan – and a seemingly unending supply of sadistic psycho killers – she created the fictional town of Bradfield, an alternative Manchester grafted somewhere into the Calderdale valley. The Wire In The Blood ITV adaptation with Robson Greene in the lead ran for six full series before Bradfield was finally relieved of its commitment to 6am hair and makeup.
“That first book was a real landmark for me because it was so different from anything I’d written before. I really struggled to find a voice and a tone to tell that story, it was a leap in the dark. So when I got to the end of that, and it worked, and not only that it won [prestigious Crime Writers’ Association award] the Gold Dagger, that gave me the confidence to believe that whatever story I wanted to tell I would find a way to tell it.”
Reader, I buried him
As the years have passed, and 28 novels, four short story collections and three non-fiction books have accrued, the tales she’s told have been threaded with all manner of Northern lore: from the shadow of the Moors Murders (in A Place of Execution, 1999), to the suffering of the miners’ strike (evoked in one of her most personal pieces, A Darker Domain, 2008). With 2000’s Killing The Shadows, in which a deranged serial killer targets the crime writing community, there was almost a puckish postmodern whodunnit.
Now, with her most nuanced heroine, the embattled cold case investigator Karen Pirie, facilitating what may be her most seasoned work (“I think Nicola sees something of herself in Karen,” she remarks, after the Scots Nationalist leader declares the insubordinate cop to be her favourite of McDermid’s characters), the annals of Tony and Carol seem perhaps by comparison to be somewhat lighter in the right hand page than in the left. Over the course of ten hair-raising instalments, readers have seen the pair tangle with a medieval torture fiend, lock horns with the legacy of the holocaust, fix a Savile-esque celebrity dungeon-monster, tackle a Bradfield Victoria football stadium bombing, subdue an outbreak of suspicious suicides and corner a ruthless Ripper-style sex killer – all the while navigating the boundaries of a professional/private relationship, the spectre of Carol’s drinking, the machinations of Tony’s mother, separation by peril, secondment and tiff, and the consolations of completeness to be found in the strength of each other’s trust.
If Tony wasn’t pathologically impotent you can only imagine the sexual olympics these two would be engaging in – but of course that’s the point.
Their last outing, 2017’s Insidious Intent, culminated with an author’s note imploring readers not to divulge the bombshell ending (“Some people were outraged. I was told of people in tears. But it made people sit up and pay attention, which as a writer is very gratifying.”). When, during her live natter with Sturgeon, McDermid let slip that Tony and Carol’s latest outing, How The Dead Speak, will likely be their last, the anguish the news was greeted with was the unmistakable sound of readerly bereavement.
“It’s okay! It’s fine! It’s not like they’re real people!” is how the author regards the development herself, as the new book finds Tony contemplating his future from a prison cell and Carol seeking treatment for PTSD, just as their former ReMIT colleagues unearth human remains in the grounds of Bradfield’s local convent.
Having been a young girl devouring the Chalet School novels, McDermid has always been keen to exploit the dividend one adventure can bequeath the next; the way characters in a book series can grow and take on new realities with each episode rather than returning, Famous Five-like, to a default existence, as though life were an endless summer and nothing ever changed the basic facts.
“I want to push forward,” she says. “I don’t want to become the kind of writer who just shunts out the latest nonsense story for the sake of it. It’s got to engage my head and my heart.
“There comes a point where you just can’t inflict any more on characters because it ceases to be credible. Tony and Carol go through quite different challenges, and I think that in the end they both end up in a place that’s credible, that I’m comfortable with. Certainly for now, if not forever. It was quite challenging in terms of making the story work. But I enjoyed that.”
She cracks a smile. “I like a challenge.”
Main image by Danny Moran
How The Dead Speak is out now, published by Little, Brown
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