By J.F. Penn
Val McDermid is one of the UK’s most well-known crime writers, a multi-award winning and many times bestselling author. Her Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series was turned into the TV series Wire in the Blood, and her thirty-three books span crime, literary fiction, and children’s books, as well as many short stories.
Her latest book, THE SKELETON ROAD, opens with the discovery of a body on top of a disused building in Edinburgh. As cold case Detective Karen Pirie delves into the case, she follows a trail stretching from Oxford to war-torn Dubrovnik and uncovers a hidden past in a forgotten Balkan village.
British thriller author J. F. Penn interviewed Val for THE BIG THRILL when the book was released in the UK. It’s available in the US in December 2014.
Read the transcript below or you can listen to the full interview here on SoundCloud if you’d like to hear Val’s lovely Scottish accent.
THE SKELETON ROAD tackles the theme of geopolitics, hugely topical at the moment. Can you talk about what inspired you to write around this theme?
It’s one of those bizarre things that has turned out to be eerily in the headlines as the book comes out, because that really wasn’t what I had at the forefront of my mind when I was thinking about it. It’s one of those things where you have a story in your head for a long time, or a couple of stories in this case, and it just takes a while for them to come together. And, the starting point for this book was two pretty extraordinary women that I’ve known over the years.
The first one was someone I knew when I was at Oxford, a philosophy tutor at my old college, and we became good friends while I was an undergraduate, and stayed friends for years. She was very involved with the Underground University movement, when the Soviet Empire was still in place, and she and her colleagues would pretend to be going on holiday to a place like Czechoslovakia, but they’d secretly be conducting philosophy seminars in people’s spare bedrooms and the cellars underneath pubs. She eventually got barred from Czechoslovakia for her activities, but she transferred her attention to Yugoslavia, where she inadvertently got caught up in the Siege of Dubrovnik and became a great supporter of the city during the siege, but also afterwards; she became a great fundraiser and she ended up being honored by the state, and by the city, and she was made an honorary general in the Croatian Army, and had a square named after her in Dubrovnik.
So she told me lots of war stories about her time there. And that’s one of those things when you’re hearing about it and your friends are talking about it, and you think “There’s a book in here somewhere,” but I never had the story to go with it. And then another friend, Professor Sue Black, from Dundee University, who’s a forensic anthropologist and was the lead anthropologist on the British investigative team into the war crimes in former Yugoslavia supplied the missing piece. She participated in the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, and she talked to me at some length over the years of her involvement in those cases, coming along after the massacres and trying to piece together what had happened.
The two things sat in my head for a while, and the thing that crystallized them in a very strange way was reading a book called THE NIGHT-CLIMBERS OF CAMBRIDGE, which was about a bunch of guys in the 1930s who used to free climb up the outsides of buildings in Cambridge. Somehow, all the pieces just came together: climbing the outsides of buildings, the idea of a skeleton being discovered where a skeleton shouldn’t be, and that leading back into a sort of twisted history of what happened during the Balkans in the nineties.
Speaking of Professor Sue Black, you have recently helped fund a mortuary at the University of Dundee where she has a lab. Why did you want to do that? Why is the lab so important?
Well, Sue’s been a great supporter of not just me but other crime writers over the years, and like a lot of people in the forensic science community, she gives unstintingly of her time and her experience and her knowledge, and never asks for anything in return. We’ve known each other for the best part of twenty years now, and she desperately wanted to set up this mortuary with this new system of embalming, which makes it much better for teaching, but also much better for surgeons to try out new surgical techniques. Anyway, the cost of the basic facility was going to be £2 million, and the university was prepared to put up £1 million, if Sue could match-fund it.
So we were talking about if there was anything that crime writers could do to help, because, as I said, they give us a lot, but we never get the chance to really give anything back. And we came up with this crazy idea, this Million for A Morgue campaign, and the general idea was that I corral a bunch of ten of us crime writers who all use forensics in our work, and the public could vote for their favorite amongst us. Every time you vote it cost £1. You could vote as often as you wanted. It was a way of donating money to a good cause, but also to, I suppose, express a preference for your crime-writing tastes.
This ran for a couple of years, and we eventually raised the money, and I was the lucky one who came out top of the poll, so I get the mortuary named after me!
It’s kind of weird. When I set out in my career as a writer of crime fiction, I didn’t imagine for a moment I’d end up with a mortuary named after me!
And will you donate your body to the mortuary?
If Sue wants it, she can have it! You know, what’s left of it after I’ve trashed it comprehensively!
I think it’s brilliant, and obviously readers love all the gory details, which is why they love your work. I wondered if there was a particularly weird thing that sticks in your mind from Sue that you’ve included in your books, whether it was THE SKELETON ROAD or something else?
The great quality that Sue has is of rendering her information in the terms a layperson can understand. So for someone like me with a very limited grasp of the physical sciences, she explains things in terms that are very easily explicable. I can remember going to her when I was researching a book called THE GRAVE TATTOO some years ago, and I said to her, “I’m looking for information about bog bodies. What would a body look like after it had been in a peat bog for two hundred years?” And she thought for a moment, and then she said, “A leather bag with a face on it”! And that was such a vivid image that that went straight into the book verbatim. It’s the perfect image, isn’t it? You can just see that in your mind’s eye.
And because that’s the way her mind works, she is a remarkably helpful source for me. But sometimes she comes up with images that are quite disturbing in a different sort of way. I did once ask her what a pubic scalp in formalin would look like, and she said, “Well, the hair would be quite bleached, and the meat side of it, the flesh side of it, would look like a tin of tuna.” I couldn’t look a tin of tuna in the face for months after that!
You’re proudly Scottish, and Scottish locations and characters feature prominently in your books, and Edinburgh is in THE SKELETON ROAD. Can you talk about a couple of places in Scotland that are particularly special to you, and how they feature in your work?
I’ve always thought a sense of place is a really key element in good crime fiction. All the writers whose books stick most in my mind are the ones who really summon up a vision of a place for me. So when I’m thinking about a book, I’m always thinking about where it happens. And there are some locations that just seem to invite writing about them.
I grew up in Fife, which is across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. And the mining village where I spent a lot of time, where my grandparents lived, East Wemyss, has these caves that run along the base of the cliff, and it just seemed to me that these caves, which have been inhabited for probably more than five thousand years, I thought that would be a perfect place to put a body, so that was always in the back of my head, and eventually in A DARKER DOMAIN, I got to write about that part of Fife and its mining history, but I also got to use the caves as I’d always fancied. Probably since I was quite a young child, I’d imagined pirates and murders and all sorts of heinous goings-on in the caves!
And Edinburgh itself, of course, is a fascinating backdrop for any kind of book. It’s a World Heritage Site and you’ve got the New Town with its Georgian splendor and order and elegance, and then you’ve got the Old Town with its back alleys and mysterious dark closes, and the shadow of Burke and Hare hanging over it. So there’s lots of contrast, and of course it’s the capital city, with the Parliament and the financial sector, but it’s also got areas of deprivation as well, so, again, you get these contrasts, these collisions of different places bumping into each other.
One of the other things that’s a fascinating element of having Scotland to write about is that you have a vast emptiness. The Highlands is still one of the last wildernesses, and there are lots of places in the Highlands where you can walk all day and not see another human being, and so there are possibilities there for setting scenes up in the Highlands, where you can exploit the grandeur and the wildness of the landscape. It’s quite good for dramatic chases!
Another place that often features in your books, and indeed in THE SKELETON ROAD, is St. Scholastica’s College in Oxford. I wonder if you could talk about St. Hilda’s and your relationship with Oxford, and how it continues to resonate in your work.
I went to St. Hilda’s in Oxford, and St. Scholastica’s isn’t really St. Hilda’s. I mean it’s an amalgam of various places, and I have transplanted some aspects of North Oxford, so it’s kind of a bit of St. Hilda’s but kind of transplanted to LMH (Lady Margaret Hall), you know?
But I went to St. Hilda’s when I had just turned seventeen. I was the first person from a Scottish state school they’d ever accepted. And for me, it was a huge culture shock. Fife is quite a parochial place. For a long time it was quite cut off from the rest of Scotland, until we got the road bridges fifty years ago, and so it was quite inward looking, and to go from somewhere like that to Oxford was quite a shock. For a start, nobody could understand a word I said, because I had a very thick Fife accent, and they still use a lot of dialect words in Fife. They also talk with a fast kind of speak, a fast kind of tempo.
So first, I had to learn to speak English! Everything was strange, even the vegetables were different. There were things that I’d never seen before: aubergines and broccoli and red peppers and things like that we’d take totally for granted now were just not part of the Scottish gastronomic landscape of the 1960s and early ’70s. But the important thing for me, I think, was that St. Hilda’s felt like a very egalitarian place, and it still does. It didn’t feel like it was a place of snobbish cliques; it felt very much like a place where you were judged on the quality of your mind and the quality of your discourse. And I felt that I was there because I deserved to be, and I’d got there on my own merits. I felt that these people have the keys to the kingdom, and I’m going to wrestle them from their dead hands. So, for me, it was just a time of great opportunity.
The thing about Oxford, if you actually dive into it head first and seize what it has to offer with both hands, is it’s a place that will nourish you for the rest of your life. St. Hilda’s, every summer, has a Crime and Mystery Conference, and I have been most of the twenty-odd years that it’s been going, and so that’s another thing that connects me back into St. Hilda’s. I’ve also continued to be connected to the College, and they made me an Honorary Fellow a couple of years ago: of all the awards I’ve won, that’s probably the one I feel most proud of.
How does the architecture of Oxford and the city itself play out in your books?
It’s about giving a vivid backdrop that the reader can connect to. It’s almost a little trick that you play on the reader. Everybody knows that murders are not resolved in the way that we write about them: it’s not just one maverick inspector with a sergeant who buys the beer. It’s a lot more complex, and often a lot duller than that. So we’re inviting our readers to come on a journey of suspension of disbelief, and anything that makes it easier for them to suspend their disbelief is a bonus, really.
If you write about a real place with a sense of what it’s actually like, and you make that place come alive for the reader, and the reader knows that place, they will think, “If she’s telling me the truth about this, then she must be telling the truth about everything else.” So it’s a little bit of a narrative trick.
But also, you have to write about it in such a way that the person who’s never been there can connect it to their own experience of cities. So you try to write about these things in a way that people will go, “Oh yes, that’s just like this part of the town that I live in.” You know, it’s the student district or the working-class district, or you try and find something that makes it meaningful to people who’ve never been there. But sometimes, you get cities like Edinburgh, like Oxford, where the architecture is an absolute gift and it would be kind of perverse not to take advantage of it.
What else have you had to overcome to get to where you are today, one of the UK’s most famous crime writers?
For a start, I grew up in a working-class community in Fife, where people like us don’t become writers. There’s nobody in my family who has any connection to the creative industries at all. My generation was the first one where anybody went to university, but all my cousins are scientists or social scientists; there’s nothing at all creative like that. And so people say, “You can’t be a writer, you need to get a proper job.” So there’s a whole set of social expectations, a whole set of class politics to get past. And I started working in the 1970s in newspapers, when it was definitely still a man’s world. When I went to work in Manchester, Mirror Group Newspapers had 137 journalists: only three of them were women. So, there was stuff like that. I’ve been an out lesbian for the best part of forty years now, and that hasn’t always been an entirely straightforward path, either. There have been a lot of times when people have gone, “You can’t do that.”
Then in practical terms, with my writing, I started off with one series, then I brought it into another series, and people said, “You can’t write different kinds of books, you just have to keep giving people what they want,” and I’ve never done that. Then in practical terms, with my writing, I started off to write, that are not necessarily what people said I should be writing next. I’ve never wanted to just write one series; I’ve always written the books that I cared about, not what I was expected to write. And sometimes that leaves readers slightly wrong-footed, because they don’t quite get the book they expect. I’m sorry if that’s sometimes a disappointment, but the plus side of that is that I think overall I write better books, because the books that I write come from the head and the heart; they’re books that matter to me.
Talking about genre, your books are said to be part of the “Tartan Noir” genre. How would you describe that for readers who may not have heard of it before?
Well, I do think it is the case that there’s a difference in sensibility between the way that Scots write and the way that English write, and it comes from a different cultural history, a different social history. Scottish crime fiction does cover a huge span of types from quite cozy-ish novels set in small towns to really dark, very noir novels set in the Central Belt mostly. But what I think we all have in common is that we’re all fascinated with the psychological. We’re all fascinated with what makes people tick, why people do the things they do. So in general, Scottish crime fiction, I think, has a very strong psychological thrust to it.
Set against that darkness is black humor, and we all have, I think, that leavening of black humor in our work. The Scots are very good at laughing at times of adversity, and frankly, we get a lot of practice. At a Scottish funeral, people will tell funny stories about the deceased; people will laugh, and that’s what we’re like. We have a strong gallows humor, and that permeates our books as well as that sort of dark night of the soul, that sort of Calvinistic closed-in–ness.
It’s a contrast that the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid characterized as ‘The Caledonian antisyzygy,’ which is the yoking together of opposing forces. So on the one hand, we have got this Calvinist history, but on the other hand, we also have the party animal, the whisky drinking, the dancing, the singing, the music side of us. So those two things are always at war within the Scottish character, and I think they appear in the so-called “Tartan noir” school of writing.
Which writers have influenced your work?
It’s always hard to say who your influences are, because it’s easier, I think, for the reader to see those influences, but in terms of writers I feel I’ve learned from, it’s quite a wide range. I’d say Robert Louis Stevenson, Margaret Atwood, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith and Reginald Hill, all in different ways. And, of course, Sara Paretsky, who created the first female private eye that really spoke to me, which had the urban setting, politics, and a woman with a brain and a sense of humor at the heart of the book. So all those writers in different ways have taught me something about my craft, and have helped me to become the writer I am.
J. F. Penn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the ARKANE thrillers and the London Psychic series. Joanna is passionate about international travel, psychology, and the supernatural, and she weaves these obsessions into her fast-paced novels. She also likes a few gin and tonics …
Photography credit: Mimsy Moller