winning author Val McDermid was born in Scotland, and now lives in
Manchester. She read English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and was
a journalist for sixteen years, but is now a full-time writer. In
1995 she won the CWA Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of
the year with The Mermaids Singing and was short listed in
1999 for the CWA Gold dagger awards for A Place of Execution. One of
the UK's most talented writers, she has written three series. Her
latest book The Last Temptation is set in Europe and reunites
psychological profiler Dr Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan. A major
ITV series based on the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series will be
broadcast in 2002 with Robson Green playing the lead role.
Ayo: What made you decide to write mystery fiction?
Val: I had always wanted to be a storyteller, but my first
attempts at writing literary fiction were a disaster. Maybe
because I started too young, I don't know. But I'd always read and
enjoyed crime fiction, right across the spectrum, and the defining
moment for me was reading Sara Paretsky's first V I Warshawski
novel, Indemnity Only. Here was someone writing something I'd
never seen before - a mystery with an urban setting that dealt
with contemporary women's lives, that didn't shy away from
engaging with the politics of the society it reflected and that
was fun. I knew I'd found the right niche for my own imagination
then and there...
Ayo: Who were your influences when you decided to start writing
in general? Do other books still influence your writing and if so,
what other types of writing are you attracted to?
Val: It's probably easier for other people to identify
influences in my work than it is for me, since none of us likes to
think we're aping other writers! But writers who were important to
me as a reader thinking about writing were as diverse as Robert
Louis Stevenson, Margaret Atwood, Norman McCaig, Raymond Chandler,
Josephine Tey, Patricia Highsmith, Kate Millett, Joseph Heller and
Ayo: Do you still enjoy reading crime fiction yourself? Why?
Val: Why not? Al the reasons I first enjoyed it still
exists. At its best, it's engaging, edifying, entertaining and
escapist. All the reasons we turn to any form of art or
Ayo: Do you enjoy being part of the mystery community and the
accompanying events e.g. attending crime fiction conferences and
book signing events? Which conferences do you always try and
ensure that you attend and why?
Val: Being a writer is a very isolated existence. And I'm
quite a gregarious person, so I'm very happy that there exists a
community of writers and enthusiasts who enjoy socialising. It's
fun to get out and party with other people, many of whom have
become good friends over the years. I like the mix of work and
play at conferences, and book signing events are generally a
lovely massage to the ego, though they can get a little wearing at
the end of a long tour, particularly in the US where the
travelling is so brutal. I usually attend St Hilda's
conference in Oxford every summer, where I particularly appreciate
the intimacy of a relatively small group and the stimulation of
intelligent well thought out presentations. I haven't missed a
Bouchercon since I first attended in 1994, and I love the buzz that
comes with such a big convention, as well as the chance to sit down
and catch up with all the friend's I haven't seen since the previous
year. Last year I went to Magna cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana for
the first time, and I'll definitely be back there again. It's a
medium-sized gathering, about 250-300 people, a mixture of panels,
author interviews and academic papers. It's also one of the most
welcoming gatherings I've ever attended, and I had a ball. It's
always held on the last weekend of October, so there are years when
it's easy to tag it on to Bouchercon.
Ayo: Your books always have a wide range of diverse characters
and they also always have such depth. Where do you get the ability
to ensure that your characters are so rounded?
Val: I have no idea. Must be something to do with
Schizophrenia... I spend a long time working on a book in my head
before I start writing, getting to know the people who will carry
the story, so I guess that's where it happens. As to how... well,
I do people watch a lot!
Ayo: How would you describe your books to a novice reader and
which of your books would you suggest that they start with?
Val: I write pretty much across the genre, so the chances
are that there's something in there that will appeal to every
reader. I think of the Lindsay Gordon novels as being sort of cosy
- they have an amateur sleuth who gets sucked into investigations
and they operate within the classic English whodunit tradition,
although having a lesbian protagonist means there is a bit of a
The Kate Brannigans are first-person private eye novels,
coming from the US tradition, and maintaining, the convention of
the smart-mouthed detective who always gets her man. They differ
mostly from the Lindsay Gordons in that the murder isn't the
starting point for the book- Kate is investigating other things
and murder just happens along the way.
Then there are the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan novels, which are
dark psychological serial killer thrillers, which deal head on
with issues around violent, sexually motivated homicide. The
latest of those is The Last Temptation, which came out in February
2002. I've also written two standalones - A Place of Execution,
which is rather hard to categorise. The first part of the book
purports to be a true crime account of a case from the 1960s. In
the second part of the book, the events of the past prove to have
long shadows, which are finally dispelled in the course of the
inquiries the "writer" of the first part of the book
when she's researching her account. Does that make a word of
sense? Anyway, it's set in and around a tightly knit Derbyshire
village and there is no blood and gore. The second of these
standalones is another psychological thriller featuring Fiona
Cameron, and her efforts to track down a killer who is murdering
Ayo: What were the last five books that you read?
Val: No Great Mischief, Alistair McLeod
Kisscut, Karin Slaughter (does I count if I read it in
Resurrection Men, Ian Rankin
Mr Sandman, Barbara Gowdy
Where's Maisie's Panda? Lucy Cousins
Ayo: What do you think of the state of contemporary crime
Val: The best of it - both in literary fiction and in the
crime genre - is imaginative, courageous, beautiful and to be
treasured. The worst of it? Literary writers more obsessed with
theory and critics than narrative and readers And genre writers
obsessed with climbing on market-driven bandwagons rather than
using their imagination.
Ayo: What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
Val: Sleeping! Reading, walking, cooking, socialising with
family and friends, playing computer games. Ha! Like I have time
Ayo: What do you find the most difficult when you are writing?
Val: Not allowing myself to be distracted.
Ayo: At least one of your books in the different series that you
have written has been nominated for an award. In 1994 Crack Down
was nominated for the Golden Dagger and in 1995 it was also
nominated for an Anthony Award. In 2001 Booked For Murder was
nominated for a Lambada Literary Award for Mystery in the Lesbian
and Gay category and of course The Mermaids Singing won the 1995
Macallan Gold Dagger. Have you been surprised at the way so much
of your writing has been acknowledged?
Val: It's always a surprise when the accolades arrive. I
know I'm not alone among writers in feeling perpetually
dissatisfied with what I've achieved in any given book, so it's
always something of a shock to discover that the readers are
happier than me with the end product. The awards and the
nominations are always a thrill.
Ayo: Your first Lindsay Gordon book Report for Murder was first
published in 1987. I am not sure whether or not you are aware but
earlier this year it became part of the recommended core reading
for one of the modules - genre fiction which forms part of the MA
Reading Postmodernity - Post Modern and Post-Colonial English
Literature at South Bank University. How do you feel about it
being used as part of the core reading list for a post-graduate
Val: Pretty weird, really. I'm very flattered, of course,
but also faintly embarrassed because I feel that as a writer I've
come a very long way since that first novel in terms of learning
my craft. It feels odd to find that something I wrote to give
pleasure is now worthy of study!
Ayo: I understand that there may be a new Lindsay Gordon book
called Hostage to Murder. What gave you the idea for a new book
and when is it due to be published?
Val: I'd had an idea kicking around for a while that refused
to allow itself to be moulded into anything but a Lindsay novel.
Then I went to Russia at the end of 2000 and fell in love with it,
and that gave me the perfect foreign setting for the central
section of the book, so there seemed no reason to keep fighting
it! It was great fun to see where Lindsay was several years on -
she's having something of a midlife crisis, I have to tell you.
The Women's Press will probably publish it in spring 2003.
Ayo: The Kate Brannigan books are totally different from the
Lindsay Gordon books what made you decide to write the Kate
Val: The Lindsay Gordon one's were only ever intended to be
a trilogy. I had always planned on doing something different. I
thought it would be interesting to write in first person and to
see if the very American PI form could be translated to the UK,
given how different our different social mores are. And I wanted
to see if I could walk in very different shoes. Not to mention
making a living...
Ayo: The last Kate Brannigan book was Star Struck which won the
French Grand Prix Des Romans D' Aventure in 1998. Have you any
plans to write another one? It seems that at the moment she has
been left languishing.
Val: I have every intention of going back to Brannigan. I
have a strong idea for a seventh novel at least, working title
Half Life. It's simply a question of fitting it into a very busy
writing schedule when other books seem to take priority in my
imaginative and professional life!
Ayo: The Mermaid Singing won the CWA Golden Dagger in 1995, were
you surprised when you found out it had won and did you feel that
there was additional demand on you afterwards as a writer?
Val: I was astonished. I didn't think people like me won the
Gold Dagger! Inevitably, it does bring a degree of pressure to
perform to a certain standard, but frankly, the advantages far
outweigh the downside.
Ayo: In 2000 your non-fiction book A Suitable Job For A Woman
was nominated for an Edgar Award. What promoted you to write this
Val: I made the mistake of getting drunk with a non-fiction
editor and talking about real women PIs that I had encountered.
She said she thought there would be a good book in it, I agreed,
and she called me in the morning when we were both sober and
commissioned it then and there. It's not often someone pays you
money to spend six months wandering around talking to interesting
women and then writing about it... But it was much harder work
writing a novel, so I don't think I'll be doing that again!
Ayo: While you were researching this book did it in any way
tempt you to consider a change of career to write "true crime"
instead of crime fiction?
Val: Not in the slightest. Reality is very frustrating. It's
not neat, it's not dramatically effective and you don't have any
choice about the people you have to spend mental time with.
Ayo: Do you believe in any case that crime writers are
influenced to a certain extent by true crime events?
Val: Some more than others. I draw very little on real-life
events, but I know others, such as Ian Rankin, do it a lot.
Ayo: A Place of Execution is a taut psychological thriller, one
of the best novels published in England in 1999. It's set in the
winter of 1963 and two young children have vanished from the
streets of Manchester. Myra Hindley and Ian Brady's murderous
careers have already begun. A child goes missing from the remote
Derbyshire village of Scardale; it is a small hidden village that
has had very little communication with the outside world. However,
for a newly promoted inspector it is destined to become one of the
most difficult and harrowing cases he has every dealt with. With
no body, an investigation that has no leads and witnesses whom are
extremely reluctant to come forward. The outcome and repercussions
of the case are ones that Inspector George Bennett had never
envisaged. Why did you decide to set A Place of Execution in such
a desolate space?
Val: Because that was the only sort of environment where it
would work. And because for years I wanted to write about that
Derbyshire landscape, which I love.
Ayo: It is also considered to be a highly atmospheric novel and
despite the fact that you have been writing for many years, it has
been seen as your break out book and brought you once again to the
attention of American crime fiction readers. It was shortlisted
for the CWA Gold Dagger Award and was nominated for nearly every
other mystery award going. It recently won an Anthony Award at the
2001 Bouchercon Convention and also the Macavity Award. It also
won a Barry Award given by the readers of Deadly Pleasures
magazine as the best British crime novel and also a Dilys Award
for the book that is most fun to sell and that was awarded by the
Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Were you surprised at
the amount of critical acclaim that it received?
Val: Yes. Flattered, delighted, but gobsmacked. Because
there's a lot of good stuff out there, and it's a great honour to
do so well. (ps you forgot to mention it won the LA Times Book
Prize for the best Mystery/Thriller...) Oops!
Ayo: Killing the Shadows could also be quite easily be called
something along the lines of Someone is trying to kill UK serial
killer writers! Their deaths are particularly gruesome and the
killer is using the plots and blueprints from their own books.
Where do you get your ideas from and specifically, how did you
come about the story line/plot for Killing the Shadows?
Val: Ideas are everywhere - an aside in a newspaper feature,
an anecdote told over a drink, a quirk of serendipity, a song
lyric. What presses my hot button wouldn't necessarily do it for
anybody else; it's all about the way an individual's mind works. I
start with a germ of an idea that I think might be interesting,
then I apply the 'what if?' game to it, pushing it in lot's of
different directions to see where it takes me. Killing the Shadows
had its roots partly in my concern over the way offender profiling
was being misused by some people, partly at quite a few events I'd
done, the notion of the moral responsibility of the writer had
come up, and partly because we went to Toledo on holiday and it
demand to be written about...
Ayo: If one didn't know better, one would have thought that you
were plotting to kill some of your fellow crime writers. Did you
have any complaints from them about the story line in Killing the
Val: No. A few ribald remarks, but nobody took the slightest
offence. We're all far too good friends for that.
Ayo: How do you feel once you have finished writing a book? Do
you normally have a great sense of elation that you have finished
it or do you start worrying about how well it is going to be
Val: Never elation! Relief that I've made it to the end,
depression that it hasn't turned out as well as I had hoped,
apprehension as to whether I'll be able to do it again and anxiety
about how much rewrite I'm going to have to do once my editor has
got her hands on it!
Ayo: Readers are a lot more knowledgeable nowadays, does the
fact that they are more than likely to pick you up on something
that you might have done wrong affect your writing?
Val: Not really. I write for myself first and foremost, and
I reckon I'm a pretty well informed person. I also check anything
significant that I'm unsure of. If the level of accuracy and
detail satisfies me, then it's going to satisfy 99.9 per cent of
the readership. Any major errors will be picked up either by me
when I rewrite or by my editor, copy editor or proof-reader. The
bottom line - it's fiction. Who can say that what I've written is
'wrong' in my fictional universe? It may not chime with reality,
but I'm not writing non-fiction.
Ayo: How easy do you believe it should be for readers to work
out the solutions in detective fiction? Or do you always believe
that there should be a twist in the tale?
Val: The crime novel is no longer merely an intellectual
puzzle. With the best of the genre, I don't think it really
matters if I can figure out where I'm going as I still care about
how all the elements of the book work out. I like to be surprised
as a reader, but I don't mind if I've figured it out as long as I
am enjoying the world of the novel and I'm interested in how the
characters resolve matters among themselves. What I hate is the
sort of book where I think I've figured it out and there's not
much else to distract me, so I pray the writer has actually
figured out the extra twist that would make it all worthwhile,
that little bit of magic that I've half-seen the possibility of...
but they don't get there. I've ploughed through pedestrian
accounts of the detective's meal with his troublesome girlfriend,
dull descriptions of what should be interesting landscape and
exciting events, and the ending is exactly as I thought it would
be on page 89... That leaves me feeling, "What was the point
of that?" As a writer, I try to keep something up my sleeve
for the last few pages, but it doesn't always work out that way,
and it's not the most important aspect of plotting.
Ayo: Which do you think is more important characterisation or
Val: I don't believe you can write a successful novel
without both. Plot-driven novels feel mechanical and sterile to
me, whereas character-driven novels usually lack narrative tension
and satisfactory resolution. Plot and character should operate as
a kind of biofeedback system, each drawing on the other and also
pushing the development of the other.
Ayo: Do you ever look at your characters and see them as being
either "good" or "bad"? Or do you just see a
shade of grey? That is to say that everyone (whether in fiction or
true life) is capable of being evil at some stage in his or her
Val: Where my characters are concerned, I don't think I'm
much given to high moral judgment. I don't believe in the
existence of evil as some sort of nasty virus out there that
you'll catch if you don't wear the vest of rectitude. People who
are essentially good can do astonishingly vicious things in
certain circumstances, just as people who are essentially bad can
be capable of amazing generosity of spirit and selflessness. We're
all a mixture of good and bad impulses, and mostly what comes to
the fore is circumstantial. In my book, compassion, empathy and
generosity are the virtues that matter most.
Ayo: It has been a long time coming, but finally your fans will
soon be able to see Wire in the Blood on television. I understand
that filming actually started in October 2001. Why did it take so
long and are you happy about the way things have turned out?
Val: It took so long because I was waiting for the right
team to make it. I wasn't prepared to entrust these books to the
first person that came along looking to option them. I've seen too
many good novels turned into trash TV. I wanted to be sure the
books would be treated with a degree of respect, that they would
be made with appropriate production values and the right actors.
Robson Green's company, Coastal Productions, fit all my criteria,
and I'm very pleased with the way things have worked out. Robson
is a terrific Tony and Hermione Norris is dream casting for Carol.
The scripts are very effective, though of course certain narrative
elements in the books have had to be sacrificed because they don't
work for TV. I've seen the finished version of the Mermaids
Singing, and I have to tell you, it had me on the edge of my seat!
Ayo: Your latest book The Last Temptation is a long overdue
return to the Tony Hill/ Carol Jordan series. In The Last
Temptation a clinically efficient killer is murdering
psychologists on the continent. Psychological profiler Dr Tony
Hill is drafted on to the case. Meanwhile DCI Carol Jordan is en
route to Berlin too, on a covert police operation. Both of them
have to explore a past of atrocities and a present day full of
cruelty. The Tony Hill/Carol Jordan is in fact my favourite
amongst the three series that you have written. Did the fact that
Wire in the Blood was being filmed for television have any bearing
on your decision to write a new Tony Hill/Carol Jordan book?
Val: No, I had already been planning The Last Temptation for
a couple of years and I had in fact started writing it before we
did the deal with Coastal.
Ayo: What made you decide to set The Last Temptation mainly in
Europe? Did you have a lot of fun doing the research?
Val: The European waterways form the backdrop to the novel;
as with A Place of Execution, it was the only place where the
events within the book could possibly take place. I enjoyed doing
some of the research - I spent a couple of weeks driving around
Belgium and Holland and Germany, talking to boatmen and spending
time with my crime writing colleagues in the cities I visited.
Other elements of the research were pretty harrowing, so not much
Ayo: Does the amount of affection and the high esteem that
fellow crime writers hold you and fans of the crime/mystery genre
Val: On a regular basis...
Ayo: How much input do you have regarding the marketing of your
books and yourself?
Val: I have regular meetings with my core publishers about
sales and marketing programmes, when we discuss what has worked in
the past, what has worked less well and how we can develop my
profile in the future. It's been very valuable to me; I don't see
how you can make this business work to your best advantage unless
you know how the business works.
Ayo: I understand that your next book will be another standalone
thriller and that the title is going to be The Distant Echo Which
do you find easier to write?
Val: They both have their challenges and their advantages.
With a series you have an established nexus of characters, which
is easier than starting from scratch. But you have to guard
against getting stale and sloppy with them. The standalone is
harder work at the beginning, but because you know you're never
going to use these characters again, you can do things with them
you can't do with a series character because they won't have to
carry that baggage forward.
Ayo: You have recently set up one of the best author web sites
going. It has a lot of personal and background information about
you on it. What made you decide at long last that you needed a web
site and what took you so long?
Val: What took me so long? Inertia and laziness. I've been
online for a very long time, even before www existed, and I
understood the value of a good-looking, well-run site. It took me
a little time to find the right person to construct and manage the
site, and even longer for me to get my shit together and supply
her with what she needed from me. It's an important resource for
my readers and publishers world-wide - it allows me to keep them
informed about what's happening in my professional life. And it
allows them to talk to me about my work. And anything else that
gets their juices flowing.
Ayo: What advice would you give any budding writer?
Val: Write. Stop thinking about it, talking about it, being
scared about it. Just do it. Give yourself a fixed time that is
writing time - one evening, an hour before bedtime, Sunday
afternoon, whatever works for you. And stick to it. Oh, and don't
keep rewriting the first chapter. Anybody can write a first
chapter - it takes a writer to get to the end and THEN go back to
the beginning and rewrite the whole damn thing...
Ayo: Finally, if you could take five books away with you on a
desert island which ones would you choose and why?
Val: The Complete Works of Shakespeare - because there's so
much to get my head round, it wouldn't matter if I was never
rescued, I'd have something for every mood and every state of
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson - I'd have to
have some Stevenson with me and this would be best suited to a
A guide to the flora and fauna (including fish) of the
climatic region I was stranded in, partly for practical reasons of
what I could and couldn't eat, but also so that I would know what
I was looking at.
Any volume of The Bedside Guardian - it would contain enough
diversity and bizarre to keep my mind stimulated and remind me of
the world I left behind. And it would probably give me ides for a
dozen or so novels.
The Chalet School in Exile, by Elinor M Brent-Dyer - this is
my comfort blanket book, the one I always go back to when I'm in
bed with 'flu and feeling miserable and sorry for myself. And I
suspect there would be days like that even on the most idyllic of
Val's excellent web site can be found at