A life of crime

Val McDermid has been thrilling readers with complex, fast-paced detective stories for nearly 30 years

Hero image

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Joseph Heller’s famous line from Catch-22 could have been the epigraph for Val McDermid’s latest novel – her 30th, and her fourth to feature hyper-curious cold case rummager DCI Karen Pirie.

Already acclaimed by critics as well as fans, it’s a dark, knotty story that channels some of Scotland and the UK’s biggest social and political issues – including privacy, LGBT rights, immigration and mental health – and weaves them into a many-pronged investigation into a horrific traffic accident, an apparent suicide, a supposed air disaster, and a complex case of adoption and inheritance.

The author’s craft is there at every tricksy turn of the plot, but so is an impressively broad general knowledge and a clear passion for current affairs.

“I never think about themes when I’m working on a novel,” insists McDermid. “I’m in the business of writing about characters and am always driven by the story. I’m a bit of a news junky and so it might be a news item or some fact I’ve picked up that finds itself in a novel. Often it can be quite tangential.”

I’m in the business of writing about characters and am always driven by the story

The ideas for Out of Bounds, she says, occurred to her while she was researching her 2015 non-fiction book Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime.

“I was at a conference and two guys from Greater Manchester were discussing the ways to use familial DNA to uncover cold cases. That intrigued me. Families are seldom as simple as the image we have of them, and that got me.”

The novel is an exploration of the implications – for the victims of past crimes and for justice in general – that new kinds of forensic evidence can have when it comes to unearthing new facts. As ever with McDermid’s stories, the moment the reader is prepared to judge a character, the author turns the screw and forces us to reassess our prejudices.

The level of detail is impressive, the intrigue mounting as evidence piles up. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of investigation and analysis, McDermid writes like an insider. But she says most of it comes out of her head.

“I don’t spend very much time with cops. I make stuff up. Some people make a great fetish out of the kinds of research they do, but really and truly most of what goes into our books is imagination.

“You know enough to build the scaffolding of the story. I’m not there to write a documentary about police procedures. I can’t imagine anything more boring. You do have to do the groundwork when it comes to the science – that’s when you have to talk to the experts.”

Not long before our interview, McDermid had written a trenchant defence of genre writing in the Guardian, responding to a US survey that claimed literary fiction was uniquely adept at engendering empathy: “Nobody would attempt to suggest that there is an equivalence between Agatha Christie and Virginia Woolf… Those days are long gone. Novels that undeniably have generic elements also often have powerful literary elements. They’re well-written, they have strongly-drawn characters and they deal with thought-provoking themes in challenging ways.”

But, I asked her, could you accept that there is something about genre fiction that provides people with a comfort zone, that doesn’t fully test their empathic range? I pointed her towards the airport bookstores, which seem to trade heavily in crime fiction now as they once did in horror or spy novels. Weren’t people after familiar heroes, and a sort of unthreatening darkness?

“All good fiction has an element of comfort in it. It almost always has some kind of order imposed upon it. Writing a story is about the ordering events in a world that often seems very chaotic.

“I don’t think you can generalise about readers. Yes, there are formulaic novels that always do what they say on the tin, and there are writers that do the same again and again. But the people who read those books probably read other kinds of books as well.”

Anyone who has tried to generalise about a McDermid formula at any stage during her 29-year career would have found their theories dashed with the next book. She has explored crime from diverse points of view, her four major series featuring very distinct protagonists: a journalist; a private investigator; a clinical psychologist and profiler working side by side with a senior police officer; and, in the case of DCI Karen Pirie, a cold case detective. The pleasure she gets from changing focus is tangible in the energy she puts into each book; she says her next books will be a Hill/Jordan novel, followed by another Pirie story.

While McDermid’s writing is more assured than ever, and some of her lead characters becoming almost as familiar as Morse or Marple, her fiction also stands out for its taut structure and ruthless plotting. Though Pirie is going through a tough time emotionally (she lost her great ally and love of her life in the last novel), very little navel-gazing is allowed. The gloomy mood of the book – wrought from a rich, restive mix of individual self-doubt, international conspiracy, corruption in the highest spheres and Scottish weather, as well as a sub-plot that turns around the theme of migration from Syria – emerges mainly through the action. It’s remarkable, then, that McDermid doesn’t plot her stories in advance.

I write a novel in about three months. It’s a pretty intense process

“I used to plot quite carefully but that stopped working for me about 14 or 15 years ago,” she says. “I think about a novel for quite a long time before I sit down, and by then it’s ready to roll. I write a novel in about three months. It’s a pretty intense process. I might know the story arc but that’s about it.

“The first draft is pretty much the one I submit, with of course a few tweaks that I do continually as I am writing. I’ve been doing this a pretty long time now and I’ve learnt what to do, and what not to do, from writing and from reading books by other people. I’m always reading.”

Crime writers are often tasked with defending their career choice. When they possess such an obvious talent for storytelling and characterisation (as well as, in McDermid’s case, political and social awareness), why not produce a standalone literary work? Or is it that the financial success of genre fiction makes it ever harder to switch to a less saleable form? In August, The Bookseller reported that she was worth more than £2.6m.

“Stories are everywhere. People’s behaviour doesn’t really change that much. I lead a pretty normal life. I don’t go around sipping champagne in private jets.

“I’m also lucky to have been writing crime at a time when the genre has been very expansive. You can write any kind of novel within the broad categorisation.”

Four Val McDermid novels… from four series

Report for Murder
Lindsay Gordon describes herself as a “cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist”, and in this, McDermid’s debut, she seems to be a less than ideal person to report on the fundraising scheme at a private girls’ school. She distracts herself with an impromptu affair, until a brutal murder takes place and she comes into her own as a dogged digger for truth and justice. McDermid’s skill at foregrounding the emotional lives of her “detectives” is already evident in this early novel.

Clean Break
Manchester-based private eye Kate Brannigan is less than amused when art thieves get past security she’s put in place and steal a valuable Monet. She finds herself chasing the culprits across Europe and becoming enmeshed in organised crime. The “clean break” of the title alludes to Brannigan’s need to reassess her own life while being tested to the max by a complex and dangerous criminal case.

The Mermaids Singing
The third in the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series, and winner of the Crime Writers Association Golden Dagger for Best Crime Novel in 1995, sees the profiler and DCI take on a particularly dark case of serial murders involving medieval torture techniques. Hill’s own sexual issues play into an intriguing study of the deviant psyche.

The Skeleton Road
This DCI Karen Pirie novel tells a gripping Gothic-tinged story set in motion by the discovery of a grisly decaying body in Edinburgh. This results in a labyrinthine plot that leads all the way back to the Balkan Wars – with a fast-paced denouement in which Pirie and her partner Phil Parhatka are chief players.

Out of Bounds is published by Little, Brown at £18.99

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to A life of crime

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.