As a most astute and intelligent writer with a spontaneous wit, Val McDermid always draws a huge audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival. With her iconic short, cropped hair, wearing a colourful Hawaiian shirt and jeans, she brought a breath of summer sun to Charlotte Square Gardens.
She is introduced by Alan Morrison as someone who has both a Football club strip and a Mortuary named after her – to which she quickly adds “and also a student Bar at Oxford!”
Light-hearted she may be in personality, but it is the dark, psychotic depths of man’s inhumanity to man which is the subject of her best selling novels. Recently, she has moved away from conventional murder detection or criminal profiling to set a fictional story around actual social and political events for a sense of realism.
"A Darker Domain", (2009) was set in Fife during the Miners’ strike and her latest novel is a sequel in a mini series also featuring DCI Karen Pirie.
"The Skeleton Road" is inspired in by the courageous work of Dr. Kathy Wilkes, a philosophy tutor she met at Oxford. In 1979 Wilkes travelled to Prague and later to Yugoslavia during the Balkan Conflict, teaching and inspiring through seminars. When war broke out between Croatia and Serbia, she remained during the Seige of Dubrovnik. To mark her courage and assistance, Kathy was made an honorary citizen.
McDermid knew that she had to write about these events as a tribute to this heroic work. “Kathy made me learn to think ….and also taught me how to drink”
So the plot: a skeleton is discovered hidden in an old gothic-styled, Edinburgh public school. DCI Karen Pirie is in charge of the investigation which leads back to a tale of intrigue and betrayal during the Balkan Wars.
Val explains she has had a crazy year or two writing four books, which includes a contemporary version of Northanger Abbey set in Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders.
She admits being surprised to be asked to contribute to the prestigous Austen Project -“I’m just a scummy crime writer and I swear a lot.”
“Val McDermid’s brilliant re-working of Jane Austen’s original shows that innocent, bookish girls in thrall to the supernatural have changed little in two centuries. Witty and shrewd, full of romance and skullduggery – I loved it.' J.K. Rowling
McDermid makes the point that it was probably wise she was not offered Emma as this would have become a lesbian romance, she says with a cheeky laugh.
Questions from the audience - who are your favourite crime writers? – Denise Mina, Belinda Bauer, Mark Billingham and Anne Holt.
When did she kmow you wanted to be a writer? Aged 8 or 9 and she also enjoyed composing songs. She wrote a play, broadcast on radio making her think she was the next Harold Pinter.
But after reading Sarah Paretsky, she was inspired by the genre of an urban, gritty contemporary crime novel – and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid is published by Little Brown (11 September, 2014).
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid is published by the Borough Press