Scottish crime queen Val McDermid is eager to return to Aotearoa as a visiting teacher and find solid ground in these tumultuous times. Reporting by Craig Sisterson.
This time it was intentional. For nearly 40 years, Val McDermid, an undisputed queen of crime, had entered every novel knowing she would kill. But she didn’t always know she was writing a series, though she’s written five notable ones since her debut in 1987.
Allie Burns, the heroine of McDermid’s gripping new series launched last year with 1979, a UK number one bestseller which also made several ‘best of the year’ lists, was different.
“The last two series were accidental,” says McDermid, referring to his groundbreaking novels starring psychologist Tony Hill and lead detective Carol Jordan, which began in 1995, and his popular series featuring the case detective cold Karen Pirie, who first appeared in 2003.
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“With Tony and Carol, I wrote The Mermaids Singing as an individual, and as I was writing in the book, I thought ‘these people have more stories to tell’,” she says. “Karen Pirie was a relatively minor character in The Distant Echo, but a few years later I thought I had a great idea for a standalone. I needed a detective in Fife, then I thought “I already have one, I’m just going to recycle Karen Pirie and give more weight to her character! So, it was a no-brainer.”
McDermid is sitting at a picnic table on the lawn of the historic Old Swan Hotel in Yorkshire, weeks before she pursues her visiting professorship at the University of Otago. Three months a year for three years was the plan, until Covid kicked in after its first successful pass in late 2019.
“We had a great time and felt very welcome,” says McDermid, whose wife Jo Sharp was recently appointed Royal Geographer for Scotland. “Even in a short time, we have made real friendships. It’s something we can’t wait to go back, because it was really fun.
McDermid has a full roster before landing in Aotearoa.
She’s at the Old Swan leading her ‘New Blood’ panel featuring brilliant new writers (which this year includes filmmaker Michael Bennett and his Better The Blood debut), and hosting the quiz with Mark Billingham, as part of the acclaimed Theakston Old Peculier Crime The writing festival she helped establish in 2003. Other book festivals, concerts at the Edinburgh Fringe with her band Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers and the launch of her second Allie Burns novel , 1989, follow. McDermid will already be in New Zealand when Karen Pirie premieres on ITV in September.
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Meanwhile, her new Allie Burns novels have been triggered by the pandemic, she confesses.
“I had had the idea of writing a sequence of novels covering the period of my life as a writer, partly to avoid writing memoirs,” McDermid laughs. “Many people say I should write an autobiography, but I’m not interested in navel-gazing for the few years it would take to do so. I have other stories to tell.
Also, if you’re going to be candid in a memoir, you end up either hurting a lot of people or waiting for them to die, she says. Nor a good thing. So, McDermid decided the best way to use all his life experience was to write a fictional series covering the same time period.
“This time I definitely sat down with a series in mind. I had just finished Still Life [her latest Karen Pirie] at the start of the lockdown. I like to put my books in the here and now, with recognizable events, politics, people that you can map to the time period. But every day things changed. We had no idea of the future, of the vaccine. No idea how many people would die, if it was the plague that made us leave. It was very scary and unpredictable. I thought I couldn’t write against it, I have to stand somewhere where there’s solid ground.
With the present in motion, McDermid turned to the past; that of the world and his own.
Working from 2019, “the last year of normal life”, McDermid began with 1979, a gripping story where Burns is a young Glasgow journalist eager to make her mark in a misogynistic newsroom, so hops on the opportunity to help a colleague with a story linking powerful businessmen to criminal activity. During this time, she may have discovered a local terrorist threat.
While it’s easy to see echoes of McDermid’s early days as a pioneering journalist, fighting prejudice on many fronts, McDermid says Burns is not his avatar.
“Although Allie is where I was in 1979, as a tabloid reporter in Glasgow, she is not me. She has a lot of my stories, but in 1979, for the first time in my adult life, I was young, free and single, and I had plenty of money. I was having a lot more fun than Allie Burns has, let me tell you!
The new novel leaps forward a decade: Burns now lives with his girlfriend Rona in Manchester, the Northern news head for an influential tabloid whose owner is battling Rupert Murdoch for dominance in the ‘industry. Lockerbie. The AIDS crisis. The Last Years of Thatcher and the Iron Curtain. Add murder and wartime secrets and lies. 1989 is fascinating.
And while McDermid may have been looking for solid ground, stepping back in time rather than writing contemporary tales set during Covid, his new series is full of tumultuous moments.
“There were a lot of things to work on,” she says deadpan. Coupled with library research, McDermid revisited her own old notes from the stories she wrote as a journalist in the late 1980s. As well as interviewing “everyone from Prince Charles to Jimmy Saville” during of his career, in 1989 McDermid covered the Lockerbie memorial, an M1 plane crash, and then the Hillsborough tragedy, where police and some media wrongly blamed football fans for 96 deaths.
“It was a time full of heartbreak,” she recalls.
On and off the page, McDermid doesn’t shy away from big issues, or the humanity behind the headlines. Whether she’s standing up for trans rights or Scottish independence, or quitting Raith Rovers FC last year (the football team her father was a longtime scout for and she sponsored for years in his honour), after the club controversially signed a striker who a Scottish court found was a rapist, McDermid is thoughtful, eloquent and ready to step up to the plate.
Liam McIlvanney said McDermid’s “wit, honesty and likability” made her a natural teacher. Combined with her vast knowledge of detective writing, her “tremendous intellect” and her “wise and generous mentor”, she was a perfect fit for the role of visiting professor at Otago.
McDermid is looking forward to returning to Dunedin, which in many ways reminds him of Edinburgh. But with a few quirks that confused it with Sharp when they lived there in 2019.
“Being in Dunedin is like living on a tangent from Edinburgh,” she says. “Because the streets have the same names, but they have different relationships with each other. There’s this surreal feeling of walking down Albany St to Great King St and saying “no, that’s not how it should be”. So there is this feeling of dislocation but also of connectedness, this Scottish feeling.
Last time, McDermid enjoyed things like mentoring students, revisiting Royal Albatros on the Otago Peninsula, and cheese scones at a cafe in Musselburgh. This time, she and Sharp are excited about Dunedin and seeing more of Aotearoa.
“We are doing a mystery writers tour with Michael Robotham and Josh Pomare that includes the North and South Islands. Michael and I are looking forward to presenting the Ngaio Marsh Awards and having a great evening with New Zealand mystery writers in Christchurch. I want to see more countries, spend more time with people we met last time, and go back to Oamaru for pizza.
1989 by Val McDermid (Little, Brown, $35.99) is available now. McDermid is on tour with Michael Robotham and JP Pomare in September, with public events including Wellington (Sunday 11), Whanganui (Monday 12), Palmerston North (Tuesday 13), Christchurch (Thursday 15) and Dunedin (Sunday 18).