Book festival director Nick Barley introduced the First Minister and the Queen of Crime by explaining that Nicola Sturgeon was carrying on a tradition started by Alex Salmond of politicians appearing at the book festival in a slightly different guise. When they come onto stage Sturgeon laughs that she is used to having to answer questions and it’s strange to be the one asking them. She is a huge fan of crime fiction and of Val McDermid’s particular brand of it.
Her first question for the ‘Queen of Crime’ is about the process of writing a book. McDermid has now written over 30 books but there are ideas for plenty more floating around in her head. Sometimes she has an idea that becomes a story relatively quickly but in other cases she plays with an idea for years before she finds the right way to translate it into a book. Then she starts the research, some of which has to be done up front before you can start and some of which you find out you need as you go along. She used to plan meticulously until that stopped working around 10 books ago. Now she sits down to write intensely for about three months. Sturgeon asks if she has a team of specialist consultants in the police and forensics.
“You have a team,” McDermid laughs, “I have a bunch of pals that I ring up.”
Sturgeon asks about the TV series and if McDermid had any doubts about a TV adaptation. There were three or four companies that came around before Coastal Productions came along and she felt like they understood the series and the characters. When she finished her career as a journalist she promised herself she would never again work with anyone she didn’t like or trust.
“I can’t apply that,” Sturgeon interjects, much to the delight of the audience.
McDermid was sent all of the scripts before the episodes went ahead but most of the notes she gave were along the lines of ‘that’s more a Tony line than a Carol’ or ‘that won’t work quite like that, what about this?’ The only thing she really put her foot down about was when they tried to kill Carol’s cat. She insisted that it was the only functional relationship the character had and that they could make it look like it had died but the final shot of the episode had to be the cat walking across the screen.
As a fan of McDermid’s work it’s unsurprising that Sturgeon wants to know if Dr. Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan will ever manage to get it together. McDermid admits that she doesn’t know yet. She only knows the state of their relationship from book to book and no further. It might be that when she has nothing left to say about them she’ll let them stroll of into the sunset together. Sturgeon makes the humble request (not a first ministerial edict) that they be allowed a happy ending. McDermid then suggests, “In an independent Scotland….”
Sturgeon then changes the subject to the complexity of McDermid’s novels and the political themes that appear. McDermid is never trying to make a specific point, she feels setting out with a ‘message’ tends to result in a bad book, but she engages with the world and is interested in the glue that holds society together and the wedges that can push it apart. She became aware of cyber abuse and has friends who have been exposed to cyber abuse and it then found its way into her novel. Social issues and portraits of people from all walks of life are common themes in crime fiction so the genre has essentially become a map of social history.
Skeleton Road came from two stories she had heard from two diverse sources focused on the Yugoslav Wars. While at Oxford she had known a Don who taught philosophy and had become involved in part of the secret university scheme where British lecturers were asked to go and teach what local lecturers were not allowed to. She would take holidays with philosophy text books disguised as airport paperbacks and teach seminars in basements and cellars. Eventually she was caught and banned from returning. When things changed she went to Dubrovnik and as a result was there during the siege. She became heavily involved, writing a great deal and raising money, all while the college back in Oxford were wondering why she was still there when it was her turn to be Dean. In the end she became an honorary general and had a square named after her.
The second story came from Professor Sue Black from Dundee who had been part of the team of forensic anthropologists who went out to excavate the mass graves and told McDermid of her experiences while there. So she had two powerful stories that she wanted to bring together and didn’t find an idea that fit until she found a book from 1937 titled Night Climbers of Cambridge. It was about students who would free-climb university buildings at night and one of the photographs inside showed boys in their cricket gear hanging off the roof of King’s College Chapel. When she saw the picture her first thought was ‘what if you got up there and found a body?’
Sturgeon mentions that all the characters in Skeleton Road who mention the referendum are undecided. McDermid explains that when she was writing it she was still undecided herself. She lives on the top floor and had joked with her partner that they aught to have a sign saying ‘Swithering Heights’ on the door. It would also come out just a week before so she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t look stupid just a week after the book launched. She eventually decided for herself by looking at the records of Holyrood and Westminster and deciding that Holyrood had generally been better at looking after Scottish affairs.
McDermid often touches on moral dilemmas and is interested in how far people are willing to go. There is often a gap between justice and the law. Court processes are important for a civilised society of there’s sometimes a sense of something simply not being fair. This makes McDermid interested in what people are willing to do to bridge that gap, the ways they go about doing so and how they can end up going too far.
Sturgeon mentions that gay rights are very close to McDermid’s heart and she often has LGBT characters in her books but some of the countries where she is published have very poor records on gay rights. McDermid explains that one of her books (published in 2001) was the first ever to be published in Russia with a lesbian central character. She is very happy for her books to be published in these countries so that people can feel validated in their identities. However, she will not go anywhere on promotion tours where she would not be free to live as herself.
When prompted by Sturgeon to give advice for future writers she begins by stating that if you really want it you will make time. She wrote her first four books solely on Monday afternoons because that was her time off. She also advises not to try for the perfect first chapter, partly because the first draft just needs to be done and also because by the time you get to the end you’ll probably have to change the first chapter anyway. Sturgeon asks if it gets easier and McDermid laughs, asking if running the country is getting any easier.
When it’s time for questions someone asks McDermid what she thinks of Sturgeon being dubbed the most dangerous woman in Britain since she an expert at writing dangerous people. She laughs that she hasn’t shown any homicidal tendencies so far and Sturgeon jokes that if she wants to write a crime in politics she could suggest a list of potential villains and victims. Another question asks how Sturgeon has time to read lots of crime fiction and McDermid responds by asking if we really want politicians who don’t enjoy normal things like the rest of us. Sturgeon obviously doesn’t get a lot of time to read but she says for her a life without books is not a life that is worth living.
Overall it was a fascinating and frequently funny hour. Sturgeon occupies a very small category of people: the politician than can be genuinely interesting and funny and do events like last night’s without it coming across as a form of publicity or campaigning. Not many politicians would come out of the event to spend a few minutes taking selfies and signing books either.