‘Terrorists are not evil, they are people who have done a terrible thing’ crime writer val mcdermid 911 database

Devotees of best-selling crime writer val mcdermid have read her works in 30 languages, and bought over 10 million copies the world over. The feisty scottish writer is celebrated for her memorable characters: journalist lindsay gordon, private investigator kate brannigan, and psychologist, tony hill. A former journalist who has also written a non-fiction book on forensic science, she brings in a chilling anatomical precision to some of her crime scenes.

In kolkata in february 2018 as part of the scottish crime writing festival bloody scotland mcdermid spoke to scroll.In about her understanding of god and evil, and why her time in a tabloid newsroom has been an unlikely source of inspiration.Aware what’s excerpts from the interview:

In the anthology bloody scotland, your story, “the hermit’s castle”, is set in a mysterious structure that inspires a local legend, a romance, and, eventually, a crime.


In fact, all the stories have distinctive scottish settings, buildings, architecture that are richly, often thrillingly detailed. Would you say it is a hallmark of scottish writing, especially crime writing?

One of the key elements of crime fiction in general is we are asking the reader to suspend their disbelief by a large degree, about how crimes are solved in the new world. It’s not one detective inspector in a safe cocoon solving it in the blink of an eye.Bloody scotland it’s usually a long and tedious business of knocking on doors and taking evidence and collecting witnesses and perhaps finding key sets of information that opens the lock that opens up the case.

So by asking people to suspend their disbelief, what we have to do is to find other ways to make them believe in what we are saying. And one of the ways we do this I think, is use this sense of place. If you write about a real place with authenticity, someone who lives there immediately recognises it – “oh, I know that coffee shop. Or I have sheltered under that bridge.” then they will believe the other stuff that you are telling them.

You also will have to find another way of detailing the place so that someone who has never been to your city will identify bits of their city – “oh, that’s like the student part of our town or that’s like the business district or that’s the kind of pub I would not go into” – those sort of things.Bloody scotland and you have to make it work as a city for everybody, that sense of the city.

You also have to know your city well enough to put in fictitious places where bad things happen. Because people don’t want their nightclub or their bar or their street identified as a place where something bad is going on. If you are a real nightclub-goer where drug dealing is going on, people are not going to be very happy about it. So you have to know your city well enough to be able to present those kind of places and still make it credible.

All of those things contribute to the reader coming up with a strong image in the head, of what they should imagine about. They can see in their mind’s eye, they can compare it to their own knowledge.Crime writing and finally it also helps to create some sort of backdrop for the actions going on in the book. People can almost see it in their head. So for all those reasons, I think it is important. Create atmosphere, describe the place, for example. So it has lot of different functions

You were talking about good and evil earlier. Do you think that perhaps we are living in times when the definition of evil and justice has gone through much chopping and changing, triggering a renewed interest in crime fiction?

I think maybe people have become much more aware of what is going on the wider world in recent years because of the advent of the internet, the 24×7 news channel.Aware what’s in the UK you had the 6 o’clock news and the 9 o’clock news and if you don’t make those news bulletins, you didn’t get anything till next day. So people didn’t know about things that were happening elsewhere. Now you have a 24*7 news agenda to fill. Then stories coming in from all over the world because you need to feed the machine.

I am not convinced that things are exponentially worse than they use to be. I think we are exponentially more aware of what’s going on elsewhere. We can’t say anymore as a small part or a country we know nothing. Because everything is capable of being discovered, one way or the other. So I think we are definitely much more aware of what’s happening everywhere and I think that makes life uneasy and unsettled because the media reports the bad stuff.Your city if I say it was a real nice day in kolkata today, nobody died – that’s not a story. So it is an inevitable build-up of bad stuff.

Regarding the ideas of good and evil. I am not talking moral relativism here. Nobody is all good or all bad, we all do things we are ashamed of. Everybody in this room this afternoon, are all ashamed of something. So none of us is perfect but equally, none of us is entirely black-hearted. Even people who do the most terrible things have something inside them that makes them do different things as well.

People sometimes characterise terrorists as being evil, they are not evil. They are people who have done a terrible thing.Aware what’s but they probably love their young ones, they probably love their wives. They are not the guys painted in pictures. I think it’s very dangerous for us to go down those routes of categorising them as evil because then that gives you the licence to act at will and there is no room for humanity, humane behavior for redemption, to change. So I really believe that there is some evil within us and some good, and all we can do is to try to keep that balance on the side of the angels I suppose.

One of the key elements in modern crime writing is how we respond to public tragedies at a personal level. And how a personal loss, tragedy, can become a public spectacle.Your city this “awareness” of crime and evil that you spoke of, does it also affect our capability to respond to a deeply personal tragedy?

That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think I have ever considered it in those terms before. In the UK we often talk about the death of princess diana and the outpouring of public grief. People who have never seen her in flesh also felt personal grief and I guess I find that slightly odd.

As a journalist I was involved in couple of major tragedies towards the end of my career. One of them was the hillsborough football ground tragedy in 1996. I was also covering the lockerbie plane disaster. In both these cases I was there immediately after the incidents.Your city at hillsborough I was there within 45 minutes of the event. And I found those events quite difficult. It seemed to me they were two ways of dealing with them. Either you put yourself behind a wall to protect yourself against all emotions. Or you let what you are hearing or seeing wreck you in a different sort of a way.

Those two events were one of the reasons why I decided I really do not want to be a journalist anymore, that I’ll try and make a living writing fiction. I didn’t want to deal with the consequences of either of those emotional states for myself in the long run. Somewhere it is selfish but that is the way I felt. Maybe those experiences have impacted my fiction writing.Aware what’s I genuinely don’t know and I think that it is a very good question I have actually been never been asked before.

Since you worked for a tabloid for nearly two decades, do you think it informs your crime-writing in some ways? Especially the way in which you deal with characters and plots?

When I started working in a tabloid, there was still a lot of investigative journalism, lots of human interest stories. I genuinely believed that working people deserved news media that is informative and entertaining. That was what I wanted to provide.

In the mid 1980s the british tabloid press descended into the gutter and I did not want to spend my time reporting on the sex life of the soap stars.Aware what’s so I started my plans to escape, taking the escape tunnel of fiction.

But I think the great thing about tabloid journalism is that it kind of parachutes you into people’s lives in times of crisis and you get this snapshot of their lives. You see them in their homes, you see them in their workplaces and on the street. And during those 16 years of journalism I made a huge database of people’s lives, of their faces, of their reactions, the things that they see, the things that they blame. From the highest in the land to the lowest in the land.

I have been in duke’s palaces and I have been in people’s houses where the children are wandering around in their nappies and doing their business in the corner of the room.Crime writing that’s a huge asset when you are writing fiction. I am thinking, okay – I want to set this scene in this kind of a place, I flick back to the database.

I remember the morning in derbyshire with the sun coming out like this. So it’s all there and that I think is the greatest asset of working in tabloid journalism. That and the understanding that writing is not something where you have to wait for the news to strike. Because the news happens when the news happens. You can’t go and say to the news desk, I don’t feel like writing this today, you can’t do that. So I know that even when on a day I am not just feeling like it, I can still get 1500-2000 words down on the network.Your city and once you have something done, you can make it better. If you don’t sit at the desk and do the work, you have nothing to make better, nothing.

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