Review: Val McDermid at the York Literature Festival

Criminally good: writer Val McDermid
20 Mar 2016 @ 8.19 pm
| News

Val McDermid In Conversation

St Peter’s School, York

Sunday, March 13

York Lit Fest website

“I read one of your books. I didnae think much to it!” So spoke one of Val McDermid’s aunts at a family funeral.

It’s not a widely-held view – Val’s books, now numbering nearly 40, have been translated into 30 languages, and have sold 12 million copies worldwide.

These include the crime novels for which she is famous (in series and standalones), non-fiction, short stories, a modern reimagining of Northanger Abbey – and a book for children, My Granny is a Pirate, available in English and in Scots Gaelic.

Her mantelpiece must be creaking under the weight of her numerous prestigious awards, especially the Crime Writers’ Association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger, awarded in recognition of Val’s work over more than twenty years.

Splinter the Silence, her latest novel, is number 9 in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series (televised as Wire in the Blood). Part of the genesis of the story was the phenomenon of cyberbullying – violent, vitriolic, sexually explicit online messages directed at women who dare to express an opinion.

JK Rowling experienced cyberbullying when she wrote about her support for the No vote in the Scottish independence referendum, as did Caroline Criado-Perez for the heinous crime of suggesting we should have Jane Austen portrayed on a UK banknote. Three of her attackers were subsequently jailed for their actions.

The people who send these messages pull no punches. Mary Beard, the TV presenter and academic, received bomb threats and revolting sexual insults on Twitter, following an appearance on Question Time.

Val also quoted a journalist friend, who received a message saying she was “too ugly to rape”. It’s not difficult to see how messages like these could spark an idea for a crime novel.

Football shirts and mortuaries

Val has never been one for sitting down and shutting up. At the age of 16, she was interviewed for a place at Oxford, at St Hilda’s College. When the interviewer said, “We’ve never taken anybody from a Scottish state school before”, Val’s immediate response was, “About time you started, then!”

They must have liked her honesty, as she was accepted to read English. She’s now an Honorary Fellow of the college, and its student bar is named after her.

Val grew up in Kirkcaldy, Fife, her father a talent scout for Raith Rovers – people in Fife still refer to her as “Jim McDermid’s lassie”. She’s maintained her allegiance to the team, sponsoring both the McDermid stand at their home ground, and, this year, the team’s home kit.

They’re the only football team in the world to wear shirts paid for by an author – Val stepped in when their previous backers went into liquidation.

But football shirts and a student bar aren’t the most unusual thing to bear her name. When Professor Susan Black, the leading forensic anthropologist, asked Dundee University if she could have a new £2 million mortuary, they offered her £1 million on condition that she could raise the second million from donations.

Hearing about this, Val immediately organised a popularity contest. She gathered nine more of her fellow crime authors – Kathy Reichs, Mark Billingham, Tess Gerritsen and more – and launched the “Million for a Morgue” scheme.

People could vote for their favourite crime author, as many times as they liked, but every vote cost a pound. The money was raised, and the author with the most votes had the honour of having the morgue named after them. And that is why Dundee University now houses the McDermid Mortuary.

(The nine runners-up all had embalming tanks named after them – except for Lee Child. It was felt that the Child Embalming Tank might be seen as a little tasteless. It was named for his character, Jack Reacher, instead.)

Val finished with an anecdote about her friend and fellow Scottish crime writer, Ian Rankin. They were sharing the bill at a US event, Rankin rather jaded from a long book tour, both of them having enjoyed a few whiskies. An audience member asked the question that makes the heart of any author sink: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Val claims she actually heard something break in Ian Rankin’s brain. He took a deep breath and said, “Well – I’m not supposed to tell you this, but when you first get published, your publisher gives you a secret URL. It takes you to a website crammed full of ideas. You find one you like, pay $500, delete it from the website, and go away to write your story.”

The audience was highly amused by his flight of fancy – but that didn’t stop the man who had asked the question. At the end of the night, he sidled up to Ian Rankin and muttered, “I’ll give you $200 for that URL….”

You might notice that I haven’t mentioned much about Val’s books. This is because I had so much that I wanted to include in the review (11 sheets of notes after one hour, compared with two and a half sheets for three hours of Tosca) that something had to give.

I strongly urge you to find out about her books for yourself, in bookshops, libraries and online stores. Read them in chronological order or in series order, read them in the bath or on the bus, read them on a reader or listen to them as unabridged audiobooks (especially those narrated by Peter Capaldi).

Just read them. I can promise you, you won’t regret it.