Crime stories are the novels of social history, says Queen of the genre Val McDermid

Val McDermid is one of the best known crime writers.Val McDermid is one of the best known crime writers.
Val McDermid is one of the best known crime writers.

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She’s sold millions of books and is known as the ‘Queen of crime fiction’. Yvette Huddleston talks to Val McDermid about her career and some of the new emerging talent

The author of nearly 40 crime novels as well as short story collections and non-fiction books, it’s no wonder Val McDermid has been dubbed the Queen of Crime – she is one of the most prolific writers working in the genre today.

Since her debut, Report for Murder in 1987, McDermid has sold over 17 million books around the world and is perhaps best known for her Wire in the Blood series featuring clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan, which was adapted for television and ran on ITV from 2002-2008 starring Robson Green and Hermione Norris.

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There have been 11 books in that series so far and McDermid has written three other series – with lead characters private detective Kate Brannigan, journalist Lindsay Gordon and most recently cold case detective Karen Pirie (the latest in that series, Still Life, is out next month) – plus many stand-alone novels.

Val pictured with fellow award winner Clare Macintosh in Harrogate in 2016. Picture: Charlotte Graham/GuzelianVal pictured with fellow award winner Clare Macintosh in Harrogate in 2016. Picture: Charlotte Graham/Guzelian
Val pictured with fellow award winner Clare Macintosh in Harrogate in 2016. Picture: Charlotte Graham/Guzelian

McDermid is also a stalwart of Harrogate’s Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, the largest and most prestigious festival of its kind in the world, and for the past 17 years she has been curating the New Blood strand which each year showcases the most exciting debuts in the genre.

For this year’s showcase, which takes place online on Saturday, she has chosen four authors – Deepa Anappara, Trevor Wood, Elizabeth Kay and Jessica Moor – whose work stood out from the rest of the crowd.

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“It is always a great pleasure for me to do this,” says McDermid. “The crime genre has gained much more exposure since I started out and all sorts of themes come and go. There are certain books that provoke tons of imitations like Gone Girl for example or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

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"Publishing is a bit of a copy-cat industry anyway so you often see after a big selling book a lot of other similar ones, but what I am looking for is something that is original in the writing either through dealing with a theme that hasn’t been done before or taking a different angle on something. Also, that it has an indefinable quality – the sense that the writer has something more to say.”

She generally looks at around 80 debut crime novels, a number which has increased over the years with the rise in popularity of crime fiction, now the UK’s top-selling genre. “Because I have a clear idea of what I am looking for, I can generally fairly quickly whittle the list down to a dozen or so.

"The ones I have chosen this year are all dealing with very different subjects – homelessness, domestic violence, child trafficking and mental health – and in very specific and particular ways. They all have narrative voices that are fresh and exciting.

"I think the crime novel has become the novel of social history – you can write about any aspect of how we live life now. A good writer never makes it preachy – it is the genre’s propulsive narrative that drives them – but it allows authors to explore issues that concern them.”

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McDermid’s own entry into crime fiction came after working for 16 years as an award-winning journalist. “I started writing crime thrillers because I enjoyed reading them – and I think that is very commonly the case with crime writers,” she says. “Pretty much anyone I know who has had any success as a writer in the crime genre came to it first as a fan. I came a cropper by trying, and failing, to write ‘the great literary novel’, and then I thought ‘well, what I actually love is crime’.”

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that it worked out well for her – over 30 years on she is one of the most successful crime writers in the world, has won numerous international awards for her work including the CWA Gold Dagger, the LA Times Book of the Year Award and the Stonewall Writer of the Year and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

And she still feels a thrill whenever she sits down to start work on a new novel. “That engagement and excitement is there with every book and whenever I get another idea,” she says. “I think if you don’t feel that buzz about it any more, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

When she is not writing, one of the things McDermid enjoys doing is making music – since 2017 she has been the lead singer with the band Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, alongside fellow crime authors Mark Billingham, Chris Brookmyre, Doug Johnstone, Luca Veste and Stuart Neville. They bill themselves as ‘murdering songs for fun in front of anyone who will listen’.

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“We’re just a bunch of middle-aged rockers,” she says, laughing. “It started out as a bit of fun, really, but it has turned into something that has given us great pleasure and people keep coming to see us.”

She is being modest – in her younger days she was quite a successful folk singer and last year the band played at Glastonbury, no less. “Ah yes, that was great fun and just one of those things that seems so preposterous,” she says. “I think actually there are an awful lot of writers who would have liked to be musicians. I always joke that I wanted to be Joni Mitchell but I didn’t have the hair.”

Like everyone else, McDermid’s life has been a bit on hold over the past few months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “One thing I have really missed is seeing friends and colleagues at literary festivals,” she says. “And I miss the audiences – the people who come to those events are really passionate about their reading.

“In terms of my creativity, I have written this year’s book, edited an anthology and written a short film so I have been creative and busy but sometimes it has been an uphill struggle. I would say that I have been less productive than I would normally be.

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"On the plus side I have also had time to let some new ideas ferment. My partner and I have been walking around Edinburgh through the parks and the empty city centre, talking through ideas. It has been quite revelatory.”

On the whole McDermid says she feels positive about the future and is hopeful that this period of pause and reflection might lead to some new approaches to how we live our lives. “I think it has been very interesting in terms of how the crisis has shone a light on our leaders,” she says.

“I feel very fortunate to be in Scotland where we have a First Minister who turns up every day and speaks the truth and admits when she has got things wrong. A lot of politicians have been shown in their true colours in the last few months and I think that’s made people reflect on what kind of community they want to live in as we move into the next phase.

“I am a natural optimist; I am hoping that those thoughts will be followed through and that we will see some genuine changes.”

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Still Life by Val McDermid is published by Little Brown on August 20. Harrogate International Festivals HIF Weekender, which includes the New Blood showcase, takes place online July 23-26.

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