Tuesday 20 March 2018

Titan of tartan noir turns up the tension

Thriller: Out of Bounds, Val McDermid, Little, Brown, hdbk, 421 pages, €24.99

Crime drama: Robson Green and Simone Lahbib in Wire in the Blood, the TVseries based on books by Val McDermid
Crime drama: Robson Green and Simone Lahbib in Wire in the Blood, the TVseries based on books by Val McDermid
Scottish author Val McDermid
Out of Bounds by Val McDermid

Myles McWeeney

Prolific Scottish author Val McDermid delivers another thriller filled with diverse and warmly drawn characters.

After JK Rowling, Val McDermid is Scotland's most successful female writer, having clocked up sales well in excess of 11 million copies worldwide. She's been dubbed the Titan of tartan noir, but in fact, for most of her adult life, crime novelist Val McDermid has lived outside her native Scotland.

The creator of the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series of novels, the source material for the excellent Wire in The Blood TV series, left Kirkcaldy in Fife at the age of 16, the first girl from a Scottish state school to have gone to the then exclusively female St Hilda's College, Oxford.

A bright child, she had been selected for a social experiment which gathered Fife's most talented primary school kids into a single class and hot-housed them. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was another of these star pupils.

Oxford, she has said, was a huge culture shock because the first thing she had to do was to learn how to speak proper English. Her Scottish accent was so pronounced, nobody, fellow undergraduates or her lecturers, could understand her and her Scots idioms. She studied English at St Hilda's, wrote her first novel and discovered that she was, in fact, a lesbian. Realising she couldn't return to homophobic Scotland, she took a job as a trainee journalist and eventually ended up with a top reporting job for the Sunday People newspaper, then a well-regarded investigative broadsheet.

She is a fierce critic of recent Conservative education policy. Last year she said: "If I was a 16-year-old now, I wouldn't be going to Oxford. I was grant-supported and left college with a debt of about £200. Now people are coming out £35,000 in debt. How do you start a life like that? I really feel we are heading towards the Victorian ethic where those that have the capacity to claw their way to the top will do and the rest will be sweeping the shit out of the doorway. We are going back to Bleak House."

She made her home in south Manchester, where she and her then partner had a son, who is now in his mid-teens. The relationship did not last, and she now shares custody of him. Her long-term second relationship with Kelly Smith, which resulted in a civil partnership, recently collapsed and she has moved back to Scotland where she lives in a large apartment in the centre of Edinburgh with her new partner Jo Sharp, a professor in Glasgow University. She spends three days a week, Monday to Wednesday, in a house she owns in Manchester to be with her son.

McDermid says she mines her own life for material for her books and then moves on to everyone else she knows to gobble up their experiences. Her mantra is "you never waste anything". An encounter with Jimmy Savile in the late 1970s - "I found him a deeply unpleasant character" - led to the creation of one of her most shocking villains, the paedophile and serial killer Jacko Vance. Vance, a TV celebrity who delighted in torturing underage girls, first appeared in her second Tony Hill/Carol Jordan book The Wire in the Blood, published in 1997, and subsequently returned in two further books.

"Nobody guessed it was based on Savile," she says. "For a start, Jacko was handsome and charming and I assume Savile didn't recognise himself in that description."

She has said she was inspired to become a crime writer by reading Agatha Christie's The Murder at the Vicarage when she was seven. An avid reader, she spent a lot of time at her grandparent's home and when her stack of library books had been exhausted, the only things to read in the house were a copy of the Bible and the battered Christie paperback, which became her default read. As soon as she was allowed to, she scoured second-hand book shops for more crime novels.

Crime fiction, she believes, has an unique ability to shine a light on its setting. "By its very nature, murder touches a diverse range of lives," she wrote recently. "The victim. The victim's friends, family, neighbours, lovers and colleagues. The police. The forensic experts. The witnesses. The journalists who cover the case. One crime can draw in the highest and the lowest in the land.

"Contemporary fiction is where the social historians of the future will see how we live now, just as Dickens provides an insight into Victorian England."

Val McDermid's latest book is called Out of Bounds, and certainly features as diverse a range of characters as you could wish for, from a comatose teenaged joyrider to a media baron, a deceased Member of Parliament and former Northern Ireland Secretary, and a group of Syrian refugees. At its core is Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of Edinburgh's Historic Cases Unit, Scotland's equivalent of a cold cases unit.

When 17-year-old Ross Garvie takes on a roundabout head-on at speed in a stolen Land Rover Defender, he loses, killing his three friends and giving himself near-fatal head injuries. A routine DNA test shows a surprise connection to a horrific rape and murder that had been committed in Glasgow more than 20 years before. Pirie, an insomniac living on her nerves since the murder of her live-in partner and co-worker Phil Parhatka, determines to trace the perpetrator, a relatively simple task that actually proves to be as twisted and complex as the DNA itself.

By chance, one of the leads in the Garvie case brings into focus an old IRA terrorist bombing that saw a popular Scottish MP and his wife killed when the small aircraft he was piloting was blown up. Also dead were their two female passengers, a well-known theatre impresario and her friend, a popular TV presenter and writer. Against the strict orders of her superiors, Karen runs a parallel investigation, and she and her dim but loyal assistant, Detective Constable Jason 'The Mint' Murray, find that they have poked a hornets' nest, placing themselves in mortal danger.

Packed with intrigue, warmly drawn characters and dollops of tension, McDermid's 30th novel leaves the reader looking forward to the 31st.

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