Val McDermid, Photograph courtesy of © Antonia Reeve
Scotland’s queen of crime needs very little introduction, as chair Daniel Gray said: ‘Val is Val’. She will always write books that frighten and excite, and in his case voice squawks on the bus that make other passengers shift away. He wonders if she is trying to give us all heart attacks but McDermid says the ending he refers to was just the way it inevitably had to go. She never has an overriding plan for an entire series but she has a sense of each story and what it needs.
McDermid also feels it’s important to have characters carry the consequences of events from previous stories over into subsequent books. It’s not a trend that was always present. For example, Miss Marple never seems bothered by how many murderers she seems to know, but for a modern audience emotional realism and depth is needed. It no longer feels realistic to have endless traumatic events instantly forgotten, though this can lead to a lot of angst in the later books of a series. She comments that she’s done horrible things to Tony Hill for 9 books now so there has to be some obvious emotional scarring. Though she’s sure that good things have happened as well. She pauses and eventually exclaims that Tony Hill has a new anorak. It’s purple.
Weddings apparently feature in her latest books, though not in a pleasant way, it is a McDermid book after all. She had been thinking about the fact that everyone at a wedding is in an emotionally vulnerable state. Apparently it’s very common for a lot of couples to break up shortly after attending a wedding, where the faults or inadequacies they had been ignoring are thrown into sharp relief by copious amounts of romance and booze. It’s also become a trend for young men to dare each other to dress up and crash a wedding during the reception, when everyone is dancing, drunk, and no one’s checking names anymore. Making your living writing crime means that once you start on that train of thought, the next to come along is that a wedding is an awfully good place to pick up a murder victim. As we laugh she adds that sometimes you can’t miss ideas, they come up and hit you in the face like you’ve stood on a comedy rake.
At various points during the evening the subtitles being provided as an alternative to signing become a point of comedic relief, or rather additional comedy, an hour with McDermid is usually a funny one. Whenever a particularly Scottish word or phrase is uttered both McDermid and Gray swivel to check the spelling. When Gray admits his copy of Out of Bounds ended up with wine in it McDermid jokes that if she gets thirsty she’ll ‘have a wee sook’, before twisting to watch her words appear on screen. Later on she makes a comment that includes the word ‘metafictional’. The subtitles pause and then throw out ‘met at that fictional’. The combination of automatic, predictive text and human intervention really comes to a hilarious head when Gray and McDermid discuss what writing life is like. Good days are an absolute joy but the bad ones make her feel like Sisyphus trying to push boulders up hill. The subtitles first attempt is sievalous, followed by syphlus, before eventually settling on syphilis. A slip that is particularly entertaining since earlier utterings of ‘wasnae’ and ‘frae Fife’ were correctly transcribed.
Place names in West Yorkshire are largely correctly transcribed when they begin to discuss the various series based there and the large number of serial killers that have arisen in those series. McDermid views West Yorkshire as having a murderous feel, which seemed appropriate for a crime series, even if the location of the Tony Hill books is not a real town. The invented town can have advantages in some areas. McDermid enjoyed being able to send him to a football match without having to consider the various rivalries and histories of real football teams. It also means less time spent travelling to walk around a real setting. She feels it’s important to know a place well enough that a local reading the book will have confidence that she has been there. You have to know that you aren’t slapping in a nightclub in the middle of Morningside (an area of Edinburgh primarily known for well spoken elderly ladies and having the first Waitrose in Scotland). A map, or Google Streetview, can only take you so far. It can’t tell you about the smell drifting in from the pig farm across the road, or the low hum of the electrical substation behind the wall.
A similar level of research is required for the elements of forensic science that appear in McDermid’s work. The truth of how an investigation happens will always be stretched in a novel, but McDermid views scientific details as important. This attitude resonates strongly now when juries views of forensic science and its possibilities have been so profoundly shaped by the proliferation of crime fiction in print and on screen. McDermid’s friend Dame Professor Sue Black from the University of Dundee is currently leading a project to revolutionise the way forensic science is used in the courtroom and how it is communicated to the jury. McDermid’s friendship with her has also resulted in books on the realities of forensic science.
McDermid seems to believe strongly in putting in the appropriate amount of work and factual detail for her readers. If they are willing to spend money and time reading her stories she has a duty to do them well. That means researching locations and forensic science properly, but it also means ensuring the stories are well constructed and that the endings fit the story and work well. As she says, it probably wouldn’t be a good career move to have someone turn the page to see ‘And then Tony woke up, it was all a dream!’.