Val McDermid has been thrilling readers with complex, fast-paced detective stories for nearly 30 years. She tells Chris Moss about her latest release, her 30th novel.
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Joseph Heller’s famous line from Catch-22 could have been the epigraph for Val McDermid’s latest novel – her 30th, and her fourth to feature hyper-curious cold case rummager DCI Karen Pirie.
Already acclaimed by critics as well as fans, it’s a dark, knotty story that channels some of Scotland and the UK’s biggest social and political issues – including privacy, LGBT rights, immigration and mental health – and weaves them into a many-pronged investigation into a horrific traffic accident, an apparent suicide, a supposed air disaster, and a complex case of adoption and inheritance.
The author’s craft is there at every tricksy turn of the plot, but so is an impressively broad general knowledge and a clear passion for current affairs.
I’m in the business of writing about characters and am always driven by the story
“I never think about themes when I’m working on a novel,” insists McDermid. “I’m in the business of writing about characters and am always driven by the story. I’m a bit of a news junky and so it might be a news item or some fact I’ve picked up that finds itself in a novel. Often it can be quite tangential.”
The ideas for Out of Bounds, she says, occurred to her while she was researching her 2015 non-fiction book Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime.
“I was at a conference and two guys from Greater Manchester were discussing the ways to use familial DNA to uncover cold cases. That intrigued me. Families are seldom as simple as the image we have of them, and that got me.”
The novel is an exploration of the implications – for the victims of past crimes and for justice in general – that new kinds of forensic evidence can have when it comes to unearthing new facts. As ever with McDermid’s stories, the moment the reader is prepared to judge a character, the author turns the screw and forces us to reassess our prejudices.
Scottish crime writer Val McDermid is to chair the Wellcome Book Prize’s 2017 judging panel, which features leading figures from across the worlds of literature, academia, science and the media.
McDermid is joined on the panel by Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge; Gemma Cairney, BBC broadcaster and author; Tim Lewens, professor of philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge; and Di Speirs, books editor for BBC Radio.
The judging panel will be looking for the best book of the year – fiction or non-fiction – that engages with the topics of health and medicine. The prize aims to reach broad audiences, stimulating interest in and debate around medicine, health and illness through books and reading.
For the first time, the prize will release a longlist of 12 books, set to be announced in January 2017. This will be followed by a shortlist of six books in March 2017, with the winner being announced at a ceremony at Wellcome Collection in April 2017.
The crime writer on bingeing on West Wing, taking time out on computer games and the joys of first-class train travel
Illustration by Alan Vest
When I first became a full-time writer, I mostly had writing days. People seldom wanted to listen to me read, consult my opinion or watch me perform. But the combination of success and the proliferation of literary festivals and media platforms has profoundly altered the even tenor of my mostly isolated days.
That’s probably a benefit; the observation and the company of others is, after all, what provides a writer with raw material. Left to our own devices, we’ve got a tendency to adopt the habits of a hermit crab.
I tend to write in 20‑minute bursts. That seems to be the length of my concentration span
Now I try to carve out a chunk of the year when the other calls on my time are kept to a minimum. Three or four months when I can more or less stay at home and write. January, February, March and, when I can get away with it, into April. When the weather is at its most miserable and I mind being indoors least. But my life is complicated, so even then I spend the equivalent of one of most people’s working days on trains each week.