The Beatrice Interview

Val McDermid

"The trouble with the truth is it's not neat. It's not organized in the way you would like it."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

When the restaurant in the lobby of Val McDermid's very ritzy midtown hotel proved too noisy for taping our interview, she invited me up to what has to be the whitest hotel room I've ever seen, a room that could make even your better hospital clinics look dark and gloomy. A discarded paperback mystery, by one of the genre's leading writers, lay on her bed; McDermid explained that it was the only thing in the airport bookstore she could find that she hadn't read already, and that it had been dreadful. "You'd think [so- and-so] would know how to tell a story by now," she protested, pointing out egregious flaws in the book's setting and plot. Those types of criticisms aren't likely to be lodged against A Place of Execution, a grim tale of the investigation of a teenage girl's murder set in a remote English village in the early 1960s. Her attention to detail, both in police procedure and psychological characterizations, is stunning, and as McDermid carefully pulls the rug out from under the reader's feet in the last third, she firmly establishes her place in the top echelons of contemporary crime fiction.

RH: You write three different mystery series, but A Place of Execution is a stand alone. How did you end up writing outside your series work?

VMcD: Different kinds of stories demand different turns, different voices, different kinds of investigation. A book takes quite a long time before I'm ready to write it. It can be two or three years for me getting the first idea; I play around with it and get more information about it, talk to people who know about the general subject area I'm interested in. Gradually, a kind of story develops, and I know pretty early on whether it's a story that will fit one of the characters I already have, or whether I need to branch out in a new direction. When I wrote The Mermaids Singing, for example, I didn't intend that to be the start of another series. It was planned initially as a stand alone, but when I got to the end, I was so hooked up with Carol Jordan and Tony Hill that I wanted to see what happened to them next. And I also came up with a story that was a perfect Tony Hill story.

RH: How early on in the writing process do you know that the solution to the crime is going to shift the story into the direction that it ends up taking?

VMcD: By the time I start to write the book, I have a very clear idea of where it's going. I write quite detailed synopses. I tend to plot quite complexly, and I find that if I don' t map it out for myself, I just get hopelessly lost and all the climaxes clump together and all the sort of dry bits clump together. So when I start I know pretty much every main plot point along the way.

Sometimes, I find that I've made a mistake and I get to the end of the book and I think, "This is not right." With one book, I actually got to the end and realized that the murderer was, in fact, not the murderer. It was too obvious. It lacked subtlety. It wasn't satisfying to me. There was another candidate who, I realized, would do equally well, if I could show that character's motivation. And I thought, "Oh, shit, I'm going to have to go back and change everything." But when I went back and looked at it, my subconscious had known what I was doing better than my conscious mind, because I didn't have to change a thing. All I had to do was put a scene into the book introducing this character earlier than I had before.

RH: The novel is set in 1963, a period recent enough that plenty of readers will know whether you got it right.

VMcD: Right. I was eight years old in 1963, so my memories of 1963 are what sweets I was eating and what comics I was reading, which is not desperately helpful when you're trying to create a social picture. I was lucky because one of my former neighbors used to be a police officer in the Lancashire police force in the 1960s. He was able to talk to me about what life was like for the police then, both in terms of the practical nuts and bolts of policing and the kinds of relationships there were between ranks, the social expectations there were of police officers, that sort of thing. We sat down one day with a bottle of whiskey and worked our way down the bottle and as he had more whiskey, he became more forthcoming. By the end of that, I had a pretty good idea of what life was like policing then. He also gave me a couple of his notebooks from that period, so I could actually flip through and see day to day what kinds of things he was doing.

The rest of it came from reading newspapers. I went back and looked at all kinds of newspapers, national newspapers and local newspapers, and just read what kinds of stories were in the news, what was being reported, how it was reported, what movies were coming out, what bands were on the charts, all that sort of stuff. Old newspapers are a great source of social information--even the adverts are telling you what kinds of washing machines people were buying and how much you'd pay for a car and how much a house was.

RH: The Moors Murders appear throughout the book as a subtext, which may resonate more for your British audience. Some American readers, especially perhaps younger readers, might not know about that case.

VMcD: When I started planning out the book, the resonance of the Moors Murders hadn't occurred to me at all. I was concerned primarily with telling the story, especially with telling the first part in the true crime narrative, and making it appear as if this entirely fictitious case was real. But I found myself in the position of having a book that was very specifically in time and place, so I couldn't ignore the reality that was going on in the background.

I didn't want to make too big a thing of it for people who didn't know, but I wanted the resonances to be there for the people who did know. It was a case that changed the way we looked at ourselves in Britain, an end of innocence, if you like.

RH: There are a couple of points in that first section where I had a chuckle of recognition at some sentences that are very much in the "true crime" style, particulary the foreboding at the end of some chapters.

VMcD: It was quite a challenge to write the first section of the book in a style that would be clearly, in some respects, a true crime style but also allow me to write stylistically the way I wanted to. Trying to marry those two things together was quite difficult, but I drew upon my own experience as a journalist, writing that kind of factual reporting.

For example, the way you bring in real events in a true crime book is very different from how you do it in fiction. There's a chapter that begins somewhere like, the Beatles were topping the charts, the Russians were doing this, and such and such was happening meanwhile in Scardale. If you were writing in what was meant to be a fictional narrative, you'd find a different way of doing that.

RH: Have you been interested in doing a true crime book?

VMcD: Not really. I've written one nonfiction book, based on a series of interviews with real women private eyes, called A Suitable Job for a Woman. The trouble with the truth is it's not neat. It's not organized in the way you would like it. Things don't turn out the way you want them to and you get loose ends that are awkward and uncomfortable and things that aren't resolved, and I find that quite frustrating. And I have suspicions about a lot of true crime in that an awful lot of it is speculative. You can't know what was going on in people's heads. You can't know what was going on in the victim's head because they're dead. They can't tell you. You can't know really what was going on in the criminal's head because you're either speculating or you're going by what they tell you, which is usually self-serving.

RH: As a British mystery writer, what's it like to try to build an American readership?

VMcD: I think it's harder for British authors to break out here. There is a strong American mystery readership that likes the notion of an England where there's honey sold for tea. They don't really want to hear about urban realism in the UK because it interferes with the fantasies. But there are a lot of other readers out there who like a different kind of fiction, and the exciting thing about crime fiction, certainly in the UK, is that it's attracting readers now from a much wider pool. It used to be that only mystery readers read mysteries. Now, there's much more crossover, and people who read a lot of literary fiction often read what they regard as the leading edge of crime fiction, authors with a strong sense of social criticism and social realism like Joolz Denby, Nicholas Blincoe, and Stephen Booth. [Because of writers like that,] we've busted the boundaries in the UK, we're outside that narrow confine of being genre writers that no one but genre readers will read.

RH: At the same time, many "literary" writers have been writing books that could be marketed as mysteries.

VMcD: One of the terribly amusing things about literary writers trying to steal our clothes like that is that some of them write well, but they can't actually plot a mystery. It's not as easy as it looks. They've never learned how you work within the constraints and how you use the limitations to work for you to confound your readers and to take them to places they don't expect to be taken. What I find quite interesting with new British and even new Scottish writers, is that they're writing work that has real literary merit, but because they've started out in the mystery ghetto, if you like, they've learned basic craft skills that some literary writers just don't have because they've never had those constraints.

If your plot doesn't work, it doesn't matter, really, how powerful your characterization, your sense of place, or the themes you're writing about are. Mystery readers will complain if you lose them in the middle or if your story goes off rambling. It's frustrating to read a story that gets away from the author because it's very hard to hang in there and find something to cling onto to get you through the book. That's not to say that the crime novel at its best is not also a novel of character, because it is, but you come to it with a different set of expectations, and if the story doesn't hold together, then the chances are it's not going to find a big readership.

RH: Have you thought about or wanted to do a story in the United States?

VMcD: I think it's very difficult. For most Brits, when we first come to America, because we've seen the movies and TV shows, we step off the plane and we think we know where we are. We think we know this place, that it's somewhat familiar, not strange and not terribly foreign. But the more time you spend in America, the more you realize how very, very different we are.

The only way I could write a book set in America would be if my protagonist were British and coming into America, so I'd be writing from the point of view of someone who's outside. But even so, it would be very difficult to set a book in America that had an authentic feel. There's all sorts of things, just simple things, like speech rhythms. And I know from experience... when American writers set their books in Britain and get stuff wrong, it just drives me crazy. There's certain American writers who have set their books in Britain, but I've had to start reading them as if they were science fiction, as if they're set in a parallel universe. I have a strong feeling that Brits who set their books in America probably provoke the same response in Americans, where they think, "Boy, they just don't get it."

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Colin Harrison | Complete Interview Index | Linda Barnes

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan