Val McDermid - the art of making crime writing pay

As top Scottish thriller-writer Val McDermid celebrates her 30th novel, she tells Hannah Stephenson how she never imagined her career would go on so long.
Crime writer Val McDermid has sold more than 11 million books during her career. (PA).Crime writer Val McDermid has sold more than 11 million books during her career. (PA).
Crime writer Val McDermid has sold more than 11 million books during her career. (PA).

Dubbed the queen of psychological thrillers, Val McDermid may have spent years making the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, yet she insists that she and her crime writer pals are actually quite a jovial lot.

She catches up with her Edinburgh neighbour Ian Rankin and fellow novelists Mark Billingham and Denise Mina at crime festivals - and there’s no dark atmosphere or sense of foreboding, so frequently found in their novels.

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“Crime writing’s a very friendly, sociable world. We have festivals dedicated to crime writing. We all get together and it’s very convivial. At Harrogate, everyone ends up at the bar.”

Her 30th novel, Out Of Bounds, celebrates a career which has spanned more than 30 years, selling more than 11 million books, translated into 30 languages. This year she was honoured with a Outstanding Contribution Award at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

But the forthright feminist can’t quite get her head around her career’s longevity. “When I started out, I thought I had five or six books in me. I didn’t look far enough ahead. I find it quite hard to believe. I look back and think, ‘Where did all the years go?’”

Her ambition and drive pushes her to new goals with each book. “If you want each book to be better than the one before, you are raising the bar constantly. In that sense it feels like more of a mountain to climb each time. I want to be the best writer I can be, which means pushing myself harder with every book.”

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In her latest story, a teenage joyrider crashes a stolen car and ends up in a coma, while a routine DNA test reveals a connection to an unsolved murder from 22 years before. But finding the answer to the cold case is not straightforward.

Meanwhile, DCI Karen Pirie finds herself irresistibly drawn to another mystery which has its roots in a terrorist bombing two decades ago, and again, finds nothing’s as it seems.

McDermid may research dark subjects, but she never spooks herself, she says.

“My own work doesn’t spook me at all because I’m in control. It’s my world where I’m God and nothing happens without my say so.

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“Other people’s work freaks me out from time to time. I remember reading one of Denise Mina’s books and waking up screaming in the night. Michael Robotham is also someone whose books I find quite unsettling.”

Cold case investigation has allowed her more freedom as a writer. “As Karen investigates historic cases, I can go anywhere with her. I can look at stories through a different end of the telescope and twist the kaleidoscope so you see things differently.

“I live in the here and now. I take an interest in politics, I take an interest in the world around me and those interests inevitably seep into the work. The issues that drive me find their way into the books.”

Over the years, she’s dipped her toes into television and was pleased with the series Wire In The Blood, adapted from her books, starring Robson Green as clinical psychologist Tony Hill and Hermione Norris as DCI Carol Jordan.

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But she’s not bothered about venturing into TV again. “For me, the only purpose of adaptation is to draw people to the books. I’m a writer. So I would have to be confident that any adaptation was going to be well done and well made,” she says.

“Ian Rankin and I always joke about how it took us 10 years to become an overnight sensation. That’s a healthier thing for a writer. You need to understand there are things you have to learn, and it’s hard to do that under the glare of the spotlight.”

Out Of Bounds by Val McDermid is published by Little Brown, priced £18.99.