‘OUR VAL BEATEN UP BY BIG DADDY’, read the British newspaper headline. ‘Our Val’ being Val McDermid, and Big Daddy a popular English wrestler. It has been the only occasion on which she made the front page of a newspaper not as the writer of the story, but as its subject. McDermid, now a full-time author of crime novels and thrillers, started her career as a journalist for the tabloid newspaper The People. Her experiences as an investigative journalist would later form the basis for her mysteries featuring reporter Lindsey Gordon. The Gordon series is published by small feminist presses in the United States, and Val McDermid is probably better known by American readers for her British detective novels about private investigator Kate Brannigan. Her first psychological thriller, The Mermaids Singing was awarded the CWA Gold Dagger by the British Crime Writers’ Association on its publication in 1995, and the book was published in the US last year. The Wire in the Blood, the follow-up to McDermid’s award winning thriller, appeared in Britain this autumn, and will make its way State-side in 1998.
Val McDermid was raised in Kirkcaldy, a small town in an industrial area on the East coast of Scotland. In Great Britain the class-system is still an integral part of society, and the author is proud of her working-class background. “My mum worked as a bookkeeper and shop assistant, and my dad worked in the ship yards when I was little, and later on he worked for the town council,” McDermid recalls. “It was very much a local tradition to make sure your kids had a better life by seeing to it that they got a proper education. I was lucky because the school I went to was not merely focused on academic excellence, they were also very much interested in developing a child’s personality.” Due to the few recreational outlets in Kirkcaldy the extracurricular activities organised by the school were highly popular. What did McDermid do in her free time? “Besides smoking behind the bike shed?” she says with a chuckle. “Well, I played hockey, I was in the debating team, I was in the choir and the orchestra… I couldn’t be bothered with theatre since I was this little fat kid who was never going to get the leading role. I couldn’t see the point of going to all those bloody rehearsals just to stand at the back during a scene not doing anything.”
After Val McDermid left school, she decided that she would like to study English at university. It was customary that promising pupils went to the universities of Edinburgh or St. Andrews; others had to ‘make do’ with Sterling or Dundee. It’s typical for Val that she decided to go to St. Hilda’s in Oxford instead. The school board were not at all happy about her choice. They wondered why she was so intent on going to a university in England when it graduates always returned to Kirkcaldy again anyway? “I’d had a sense in my teenage years of being different, a knowing that I was different but not having a name to put on that difference,” she says. “I presumed it was because I was ‘creative’ since I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I knew instinctively that I had to break out of that set pattern of Kirkcaldy, otherwise I would go crazy.”
Fortunately she was supported in her decision by her English teacher who helped prepare her for the university entrance exam. “I was sixteen and a half when I went down for my interview—which is very young for an English university entrance—and I remember one of the college principles telling me that they had never taken anyone from a Scottish state school before. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘then it’s about time you started!’” Val says laughing. Neither had the college accepted anyone as young as her before. How would she feel if they offered her a deferred entry instead? Not starting that year but the year after? Putting on the thick Scottish accent she had as a girl McDermid echoes her reply, ‘I’m not hanging about wasting a year! I’ll go somewhere else instead! Shaking her head at her adolescent behaviour the author says, “When I think about it now, I go hot and cold.” Mary Bennett, the principle at St. Hilda’s, told Val some years later that the interview board felt that they couldn’t let anyone with her degree of confidence slip through the net.
Val McDermid has very fond memories of her time at St. Hilda’s. “I went to Oxford with the attitude that these people had the keys to the kingdom, and I was damned if I was leaving until they had handed them over.” Apart from the common ups and downs that students encounter, Val had a fabulous time and enjoyed the opportunity of intensive study. She actually did do some work then? “Oh yes!”, she says smiling, “Maybe not as much as my tutors would have liked, because I was very involved in student politics and I was also president of the JCR [Junior Commons Room].”
During her college days McDermid made a profound and important discovery that would have a lasting impact on her life: “I learned that there was a name for the difference I felt, and that it was that I was a lesbian”, she says. When Val came out about her sexuality, she generally received much support from her immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, and she feels this was largely due to the burgeoning feminist movement of the mid-70s. Not surprisingly women’s causes have remained important to her ever since.
It was also at St. Hilda’s that one of Val’s tutors introduced her to the works of Dashiell Hammett. Not that she hadn’t read any crime novels before Hammett. “There wasn’t enough money to buy books when I was growing up,” Val recalls. “They were far too much of a luxury, so I always ended up at the library. I read all sorts, books by Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, the Bobsie Twins (God help me), historical books, poetry. It was all very eclectic.” Since both McDermid’s parents had jobs, she used to spend holidays and most weekends with her grandparents. When she had worked her way through her stack of library books, she was left with the reading matter her grandparents owned: a copy of the bible, and Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage. The latter had been left behind by a previous houseguest. “The times I used to read and re-read Murder at the Vicarage!” Val says smiling. She went on to enjoy many other Agatha Christie’s and also discovered additional crime writers of the Golden Age, writers such as Ngiao Marsh and Dorothy Sayers. Later McDermid graduated to more contemporary authors like Ruth Rendell and PD James. However, after the traditional British crime novels the hard-boiled Americans were a breath of fresh air and they would prove to be of great influence on her own writing.
After graduating Val McDermid was offered a placement with one of the regional newspapers of the Mirror Group. Two years later she was taken on by The People, in those days one of the major British tabloids. Wasn’t that a waste of her education? “No, that is a popular misconception,” she says with a patient smile. “Actually tabloid journalism is much harder than writing for The Times or The Telegraph. When you are working on a story that generally does not run longer than ten paragraphs you learn a tremendous economy of language. You also become much more resourceful in tracking down stories and sources. Many of the broad-sheet journalists take what’s fed to them.”
Because of the increasing concentration on sex and gossip McDermid has no great sorrow for what’s happened to tabloid journalism in Britain over the last ten years. She worked for The People when it was considered the best investigative newspaper in Britain. “We broke a lot of big, important stories. Stories varying from animal welfare to the fire risks in old people’s homes. The law was actually changed as a result of the reports about old people’s homes,” Val adds proudly.
Despite the idealistic conviction that her work could inform as well as entertain, McDermid grew weary of having to fight to report sensationalistic news stories with some degree of restraint. The result was that she increasingly started concentrating on her fictional work. When Val finally decided to put a stop to her career as a journalist, four of her crime novels had already been published.
As mentioned earlier, Val McDermid had decided on a writing career at a young age. It was during her placement with the regional paper that she started work on her first manuscript. The arrogance that she would write the great British novel aged twenty still makes McDermid cringe, but at the time it seemed entirely feasible to her. “I wrote this novel of tortured human relationships, of angst and pain and grief and tragedy,” she recalls. “It was completely over the top, and it was rejected by every publisher I had sent it to. Then I showed it to a friend of mine who was an actor, and she said it might make good play.” Laughing, McDermid remembers her reaction, “I thought ‘Yeah, I can do that! Cross out all the descriptive bits and add some dialogue to cover the transitions’.” After making the alterations Val showed it to the person in charge of the local theatre company, and to her amazement he agreed to put it on. When the play, Like A Happy Ending, was also produced on BBC radio Val had visions of being the new Harold Pinter. A problem arose when she was unable to work out what she had done right, and she became increasingly frustrated when she was unable to replicate her early success. Ensuing attempts were all met by rejection and with a grin Val recalls the ultimate humiliation: being fired by her agent. “When the person who stands to make 10% of everything you write thinks you’re never going to make another penny, then you know you should really give up.”
Yet McDermid still felt she had a story to tell but that it was only a matter of finding the right vehicle. The breakthrough came when someone gave her a copy of one of Sara Paretsky’s books featuring female PI V.I. Warshawski. This, coupled with the age-old advice ‘write what you know about’, suddenly made it crystal clear to her that she should write a crime novel. The genre offered the helpful framework of body, sleuth, suspects, and an ending with a denouement. So, since Val knew about journalism, she decided her detective would be a lesbian reporter. That is how Lindsey Gordon came into existence.
Despite the fact that five Lindsey Gordon novels have been published, it was Val McDermid’s intention to only write three. Report for Murder is set at a girl’s boarding school, Common Murder was inspired by the women’s peace-camp at Greenham Common, the airbase that stored nuclear weapons, and both books were written to allow the shocking close of Final Edition to have its full impact. [Final Edition was re-titled Open and Shut and Deadline for Murder in the US.]
“Usually an author sketches out a history for their protagonist but I was very inexperienced and it took me two books,” Val says laughing. “The third book was the one I wanted to write and I couldn’t figure how to get there without writing the first two.” The author had intended for that to be the end of Lindsay, but when she had an idea for Union Jack, a crime novel about trade unions, it seemed logical to bring back the politically aware Gordon. This was followed up by Booked for Murder, which takes a satirical look at the world of publishing. [The most recent instalment in the series is Hostage to Murder.]
In Britain all the Lindsey Gordon’s have been published by The Women’s Press. Did Val McDermid have difficulties finding a publisher? “Well, to some extent I imposed my own limitations,’ she says. “I finished the first draft of Report for Murder in 1985 and I was fairly confident that there wasn’t much point in my sending a lesbian crime novel to a mainstream publisher—I don’t think they would have taken it. However, if I wrote a new lesbian series now HarperCollins wouldn’t think twice about publishing them.” [HarperColllins is the UK publisher of her (heterosexual) Kate Brannigan novels.]
Yet even The Women’s Press had some objections to the content of the Gordon books. Lindsey is not particularly politically correct, and the publishing house was not happy with the lesbian killer in one of Val’s books. “It was ridiculous,” she says. “I got a lot of stick for creating a lesbian murderer. It was as if I was somehow letting down the sisterhood by indicating that lesbians could be wicked. One of the problems in the feminist lesbian movement is that we have shoved under the carpet some of the issues that are very important. There is lesbian domestic violence but for a long time it wasn’t allowed to be acknowledged outside the closed community. I find that very sad because it really diminishes the pain of those women and that is deeply damaging to people’s lives.”
Another matter that upsets Val are the feminist publishing houses who refuse to accept manuscripts by authors who do not share the sexuality of their lesbian protagonists. “Writing is an act of imagination and creativity. I’m not black, does that mean I can’t put any black people in my books? I’m a lesbian, perhaps I shouldn’t put any straight people in my books because I don’t know how they feel… Better not have any men in my book either because I’m not a man!”
Fortunately Val McDermid did not pay any attention to such silly opinions. After her first three Lindsey Gordon books, Val wanted to write novels that would allow her the financial freedom to become a full-time author. She knew that a lesbian protagonist would not be a commercially viable option for a big publishing company, and McDermid also felt that she needed to develop new characters if she was to grow as a writer. She had been thinking about creating a female private investigator for some time. Not one of those types who remains untouched by violence because, after her encounter with Big Daddy, Val was painfully familiar with the consequences. “Some writers are prone to putting their characters in a situation of violence, yet the next day they leap out of bed and quite cheerfully get on with things as though it never happened.”
McDermid was badly shaken after the beating she received from the huge wrestler. The question that had led to her attack related to a domestic matter, and Val recalls, “He’d clearly been contacted a fair few times over this story and it was kind of sensitive. I rang the bell and when he opened the door I said who I was and he started hitting me! I was trying to get away from this guy and he was punching and shouting at me. My photographer just legged it, he didn’t even try to get a picture!”. She briefly laughs at the memory, but then becomes serious. “Women who get battered usually have far worse injuries. I didn’t have any broken bones, didn’t have much in the way of bruises… It was very painful for a few days, I was very stiff and it hurt every time I moved, but more importantly it undermined the view I had of myself. I had this self-image of a woman who was powerful and who did her job well, but for six months after that every time I knocked on a door I could feel sweat on the back of my neck as if it was all going to happen again. Most writers write about violence in such a way that is absolutely clear that nobody has ever lifted a hand to them in anger.”
Val McDermid’s British private investigator is the Manchester based Kate Brannigan. The young heroine is a partner in an agency that specialises in computer fraud and security systems. In all of the Brannigan novels the main story-line is accompanied by one or two sub-plots, though they are not always connected to the central story. In Dead Beat, the first in the Brannigan series, Kate’s relationship with pop-journalist Richard gets her tangled up in the search for the missing muse of a rock-star. Dead Beat also introduces readers to the secondary characters who re-appear throughout the books: Kate’s business partner Bill; their secretary Shelley; and her friends Alexis, a journalist, and Lee, an architect, two women in a stable lesbian relationship.
Less stable is the relationship of Kate and Richard. It seemingly survives because of the conservatory connecting their adjoining homes. Whilst the glass structure allows Kate to maintain her fiercely fought independence, it also enables them to drop in on each other without too much formality. In Kick Back all is well, but when Richard is innocently jailed for possession of drugs in Crack Down, Kate’s efforts to clear his name disturbs the balance of their relationship and puts it under a huge strain. This becomes most evident in Clean Break when Kate, chasing a band of art-thieves through Europe, has a huge row with Richard. In the opening sentence of Blue Genes, the most recent Brannigan, readers are met by a nasty shock when confronted with the announcement of Richard’s death. [The final instalment in the Brannigan series (to date) is Star Struck.]
Commenting on her PI’s relationships Val says, “I was quite keen that Kate would be somebody who has a life. I didn’t want her to be this emotional cripple, a maverick, with no friends and no lover. My personal feeling about Richard is that he is a strong man in the sense that he is able to put his ego to one side and let Kate get on with her life. He doesn’t feel the need to control, he doesn’t feel the need to tell her what to do, and mostly he doesn’t feel the need to interfere. There have been occasions where he does do so with fairly disastrous consequences, but those are instances where he does so out of concern, and he is usually very laid back.” What frequently amuses Val is that a lot of men think Richard is a wimp, but virtually every woman she knows asks her whether he based on someone real and how they can meet him.
Other relationships that are important to Kate are those with her female friends. McDermid included this aspect because she thought it was important to reflect that women have started to network with each other in the way that men had been doing for generations. “I wanted to show the kind of relationships that women have together, the closeness, and the completely non-judgemental nature as well’, she says, continuing ‘The way that women will weigh in to help without being asked. They do it without expecting anything in return. It’s just ‘You’re my friend, you need this’.”
Val McDermid thinks it is inevitable that the protagonist in a first novel is either going to be the writer’s alter-ego or their imaginary best friend. Despite many similarities, Val says that Lindsey is her alter ego, and that Kate fits the ‘best friend’ category. McDermid is frequently asked is whether her two heroines will ever meet. “God, no! They’d hate each other,” the author says. “The clash of egos would be a nightmare, they’d be arguing all the time. Lindsay would just dive straight into things and Kate would be saying, ‘You stupid bitch, what did you do that for?’ It would just be too stressful to write it,” Val adds laughing. What both fictional do have in common is their sense of humour. ‘They find the same things funny’, their creator agrees. “They crack the same kind of jokes because I can’t invent a sense of humour. I wouldn’t know if it was funny.”
With The Mermaids Singing Val McDermid has taken on a completely different literary genre. This psychological thriller deals with the gruesome manner in which a serial killer tortures men to death. Responsible for cracking the case are police-woman Carol Jordan, and criminal profiler Tony Hill.
Why the sudden change in direction? “I have asked myself the same question”, Val says, “and the short answer is that it came from my dark side. The idea for the plot came to me in a flash. I was driving down the motorway listening to the radio, and something the broadcaster said must have triggered some strange synaptic junction in my brain. It was as though some dark angel was hovering overhead and said ‘here have this’, because the plot suddenly fell into my lap.”
Val had to pull onto the hard-shoulder of the motorway and write down the idea for fear that she might forget some of the details. “I’m not used to having ideas like that”, she says. “Most of my plots take a long time to develop. I start off with something that I am vaguely interested in, and I find that over a couple of years I acquire lots of bits and pieces of information about it. Then gradually something emerges as a story.”
In its early stages Val McDermid had difficulty researching The Mermaids Singing because most bookshops and libraries didn’t have books on medieval tools of torture. “Can you imagine the looks I got when I said, ‘What have you got on medieval torture? Preferably illustrated.’”, Val says laughing. On holiday in Italy the author had a lucky break. In Florence she saw banners advertising a new museum on criminology. “The small print said it was a museum of criminology and torture”, Val explains, cheerfully going on, “So I thought ‘Hmm, this might be interesting.’ I didn’t buy the illustrated catalogue, but I went around making lots of notes and taking loads of photographs.”
The thing McDermid found most memorable and extraordinary was the craftsmanship that went into these “engines of torture” as she calls them. “They weren’t just thrown together with a few nails… The pears that I describe in the book were made of silver with beautiful decorative engravings on them. If you saw one of them you would say, ‘What a beautiful object.’ Then, when you hear what it is for, you’d feel faint and sick.”
In October HarperCollins will be releasing The Wire in the Blood, again featuring Carol Jordan and Tony Hill. This time they set out to prove that a television celebrity is also a serial-killer. Val explains, “Most of what we know about psychopathic offenders comes from interviews conducted by the FBI. They virtually all come out as having IQ’s well above the average. Now these are the ones we know about because they have been caught…. Presumably this means that the brighter ones are still out there.” The author’s premise for The Wire in the Blood is how Tony and Carol would set about convincing people that someone with a high profile and tremendous public popularity is a murderer. “How would you convince people that Roseanne Barr was a serial-killer…” Val says, immediately cracking up at the idea. Still laughing she tries again, “Okay, try to convince people that Bill Cosby was a serial-killer.”
After writing the more commercially orientated novels Val McDermid suddenly found herself accused of selling out. “Yes, I’ve heard that”, she says, “and it is rubbish! I would argue that by writing the Kate Brannigan books I have given lesbian crime fiction a much wider audience. We all know the way crime readers read: they find a new writer and will go out and buy everything that person has ever written, even the obscure out-of-print first novel that got remaindered. After the Kate Brannigans many straight readers turned to Lindsay Gordon and found out that reading lesbian fiction needn’t be alienating. Then they went on to buy other feminist lesbian thrillers they hadn’t considered reading before”, Val concludes.
Fans of Val McDermid know that, regardless of their gender preference, they will still get a good read.
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1997.