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Val McDermid. Photo/Supplied; background/Getty Images

Scottish “queen of crime” Val McDermid on having a stab at Otago

Crime writer Val McDermid is heading to New Zealand, but not just to promote her latest book – she’s also taking up a teaching position at the University of Otago.

Twenty years ago, Val McDermid was peering through binoculars on the Otago Peninsula. It was her first visit to New Zealand, and the Scottish author had been touring the country for the Listener Women’s Book Festival. McDermid asked a woman from a readers’ group what was one thing she must do on her free afternoon in Dunedin. “She sent me out to the harbour to look at the albatrosses, and that was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life.”

As she talks, McDermid raises her arm to her torso to marvel at the memory of the birds’ size and waves a bright wristband – evidence of the Glastonbury Festival a few weeks before where she sang with her band, the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. The six-piece have become a fixture at book festivals, playing sets of crime-themed covers. McDermid does a mean I Fought the Law.

We’re talking in the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, site of Agatha Christie’s reappearance after an 11-day vanishing act in 1926, now the venue for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival that McDermid helped establish in 2004. She annually chairs a “New Blood” panel, highlighting fresh voices she picks after reading dozens of debuts. This year’s selection included Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite, whose My Sister, the Serial Killer, was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. McDermid was a judge for the 2018 prize.

Here, in Harrogate, as on the Glastonbury stage, McDermid is a rock star. It takes us 30 minutes to go a few metres from the chalk outline by the hotel entrance to the lifts. Readers, writers, even the Scottish First Minister, all want a chat or photo with the “queen of crime”. Later, McDermid confesses that she finds it all a bit odd, even startling, at times. “I don’t think of what I’m writing in terms of how other people are going to respond … Just before, that woman who was nearly in tears because she was meeting me, that’s hard to get my head around.”

As a young reporter in 1981. Photo/Supplied
McDermid is reminiscing about albatrosses because she’s returning to Otago this month, on the heels of How the Dead Speak, her latest, perhaps last, novel in her series featuring profiler Tony Hill and detective Carol Jordan – the duo that starred in the Wire in the Blood television series. But this won’t be your typical author tour.

In a break from her usual routine of writing, festivals, supporting her hometown Kirkcaldy’s professional football club, Raith Rovers FC, and band gigs, McDermid will spend two months a year for the next three years as a visiting professor of Scottish studies and crime fiction at the University of Otago.

Fellow Scottish crime writer Liam McIlvanney has taught in Dunedin for a decade and has long been trying to lure McDermid. Now that her teenage son is heading off to university, the time is right. McDermid’s wife, Jo Sharp, a professor at the University of St Andrews school of geography and sustainable development, will also be working at Otago. “It’s really exciting, because it gives us a chance to get a greater sense of your country,” says McDermid. “We’ll get to know people, the places, because it’s not just a quick in-and-out visit. I’m delighted to take that up.”

As a visiting professor, McDermid says, she’ll be lecturing, including a public lecture, doing seminar work and mentoring masters students in the creative-writing programme. “You can’t teach someone to be a writer, but what you can do is teach someone who’s got basic talent and is willing to work how to make their work better,” she says. “I’ll be talking to students about their work, discussing their problems, what they’re working on, and seeing if I can be of assistance.”

McIlvanney believes McDermid will be perfect for the role. “As well as being a superb crime writer, Val has a formidable intellect – as anyone who has witnessed her interventions on the BBC’s Question Time can attest,” he says. “She is also, as I know from personal experience, a wise and generous mentor. She not only understands what it takes to succeed as a crime writer, but also can convey this to aspiring writers with clarity and cogency. Her wit, honesty and sympathy make her a natural teacher.”

Related: NOTED Live presents Crime writer Michael Connelly in NZ

McDermid with her wife, Jo Sharp. Photo/Alamy
The first student from a Scottish state school to be admitted to the University of Oxford, McDermid taught herself to write novels while working as a young journalist in England.

“I’d wanted to write since I was about nine years old,” she says. “I used to read these Chalet School girls’ boarding-school stories set in Austria and Switzerland. One of the things I liked was that time passes and events have consequences. It’s not like Miss Marple, where it doesn’t matter what order you read them in because she stays basically the same.”

After one of the schoolgirls left to become, rather metafictionally, a writer of girls’ school stories, a light bulb went off for young library-goer McDermid. “In one book, she got a letter from her publisher with a cheque. That was the first time it dawned on me that writing was something you could get paid money for … I thought I would do that. I could tell lies.”

After graduating from Oxford, McDermid felt ready to tackle her first novel. “You know what it’s like when you’re 20, you know everything, no one can tell you anything, the secrets of the universe are yours,” she says with a grin. Her “truly terrible” attempt at the great British novel was rejected by every publisher she could find in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.

An actor pal said it might make a better play. “I thought, ‘A play, that’s easy, you just cross out description and keep everything in dialogue,’ so I kind of did that and wrote extra scenes to cover the bits I’d crossed out, went to the local theatre and to my astonishment and delight, the directors wanted to run a series of new plays and thought mine was perfect.”

Like a Happy Ending was performed in Plymouth in 1978 and later adapted for BBC radio. Unfortunately, McDermid didn’t understand what she’d done right, so couldn’t replicate it. After being fired by her agent – “pretty much the low point of my literary career” – McDermid realised she had to write something she understood deep in her bones. For the lifelong crime fan, another light bulb flared when she read Sarah Paretsky’s first novel, Indemnity Only, in the early 1980s.

“Here’s a book with a female protagonist who’s got a brain and a sense of humour and agency and doesn’t have to call the guys in to do the heavy lifting … It really excited me.”

McDermid performing with her band, the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. Photo/Alamy
She began writing Report for Murder (1987), the first British crime novel with a lesbian sleuth, Lindsay Gordon. “I thought, ‘This is the book I want to write, the world I want to inhabit,’” says McDermid, who’d come out to herself while at Oxford. “I wanted to write about being a lesbian, without it being one of those tub-thumping books about being a lesbian. I didn’t want to write coming-out stories. I wanted to write a story about a lesbian who has a place in the world, where her sexuality doesn’t define her. She has friendships, a life, a career, but is still uncompromisingly herself.”

Published by the Women’s Press to little fanfare, it gave McDermid a foothold. She wrote more Lindsay Gordon mysteries, then a series starring private-eye Kate Brannigan. Learning by doing and scraping a living on foreign sales, McDermid gave up her day job in 1991. “It was a different landscape then. These days, if you haven’t broken out big by your third book, forget it. If I was judged on the sales of my first three books at the time, then I wouldn’t have a career now.”

Her breakout book was her ninth, The Mermaids Singing (1995), the first to feature the Hill-Jordan partnership. She’d been reading non-fiction about the FBI’s psychological profiling, was intrigued, but knew things would be done differently in the UK. Rather than training cops to be profilers, the British police would bring in practising clinical psychologists. Outsiders meant immediate tension.

A few nights later on local TV, a clinical psychologist who did some police profiling was interviewed. McDermid scrambled for a pen and rang him the next day. “He said, ‘How do I know you’re not a nutter?’ I said, ‘I can send you a couple of my books and you can decide.’” A couple of months later, McDermid got a phone call, they had lunch, and the psychologist showed her around his workplace and took her through his method. “That became Tony Hill’s method and remains Tony Hill’s method. It gave me the wherewithal to write the book.”

The Mermaids Singing won the prestigious Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, catapulting McDermid to “overnight success” after more than a decade of writing novels and 30 years of ambition.

It’s difficult to overestimate McDermid’s effect on crime fiction over the past 30 years, says McIlvanney. “She broke down a lot of doors with her lesbian protagonist, Lindsay Gordon. She showed what could be done with psychological profiling in the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan books.”

For Tokoroa-raised storyteller Stella Duffy, McDermid’s early books were an inspiration for her own edgy 1990s crime series starring lesbian private-eye Saz Martin.

“I think what’s really important about Val and her work is her championing of other writers,” says Duffy. “Val has always been amazingly supportive of new writers. She could have looked at someone like me and said, ‘I’ve cornered this market, why is she coming along?’ But that’s the opposite of what happened.”

McDermid’s warmth, knowledge and spirit will be a boon to Otago students, says Duffy. McIlvanney agrees, noting aspiring authors will be able to learn a great deal from her about both technical aspects of storytelling and the dedication that writing demands.

This spring, in between watching albatrosses and helping students, McDermid will finish rewrites on a play scheduled for the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh next year. She’s recently been involved in a new crime drama, Traces, that aims for a more realistic portrayal of forensics. Although her book series evolves naturally, rather than to a master plan, she says it’s unlikely Tony and Carol will return after How the Dead Speak. “At least for the foreseeable future.”

If it’s to be a final bow for the duo, it’s a fine one. After the cataclysmic ending to Insidious Intent, both are struggling with new realities: Tony is behind bars, and Carol is battling post-traumatic stress disorder. When dozens of bodies are discovered in the grounds of an abandoned convent, the remnants of their former squad have to investigate without them. McDermid showcases Tony and Carol’s former colleagues and gives readers a greater understanding of the series’ protagonists.

Even if it’s the 11th and closing instalment in the 24-year-old series, it’s a gripping tale that shows its academia-and-antipodes-bound author is far from done.“People talk about other authors being ‘the next Val McDermid’, and I’m thinking, ‘There isn’t a job vacancy, you know!’”

HOW THE DEAD SPEAK, by Val McDermid (Little, Brown, $29.99), is out now.

Along with her visiting professorship at the University of Otago, McDermid will appear at WORD Christchurch’s Spring Season on September 13-14; the Celtic Noir Festival in Dunedin on October 12-13 and Verb Wellington on November 8-9.

This article was first published in the September 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.