Val McDermid was a journalist for 16 years before becoming a full-time writer of crime fiction. She has published novels, short stories and non-fiction. Her award-winning novels have been translated into over 30 languages, which makes her very happy because she gets to visit interesting places at someone else's expense. Her favourite achievement is having helped to establish the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival as the best of its kind anywhere. Here Val picks out some reading milestones on her road to becoming the writer she is.
Val McDermid on books that have influenced her
I can't pick a single book. Every time I think I've come up with my ur-book, half a dozen others clamour to be chosen. So I've decided to write about a clutch of books that I believe hold some responsibility for the writer I've turned out to be.
First among equals is Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. I first encountered this in the form of a comic book, one of a series of 'classics' translated into graphic novel form for children. I loved the story, and as soon as I was able to read the book for myself, I practically inhaled it. I must have been about nine years old, and I've re-read it more times than I can count. It's the quintessential adventure novel, but it speaks to the adult in me as much as to the child. Stevenson was a writer of remarkable versatility, and in Treasure Island, we get many of his finest qualities - thrilling narrative, extraordinary but enduringly believable characters, exotic location, suspense and palm-sweating terror. These days, I find it hard to read for pure pleasure; the writer in me is distracted by language, tricks of technique, structural analysis. But probably because I brought an innocent eye to it first time around, Treasure Island remains a novel that I can still lose myself in. I guess part of me still wants to be a pirate, just as my four-year-old son does.
The next staging post along the way is an Agatha Christie, The Murder at the Vicarage. As a child I spent my weekends and much of my school holidays staying with my grandparents. The mining village where they lived had no library and I was always running out of things to read. The only book they possessed apart from the Bible (which had very small print and thin paper I was afraid of tearing) was, for some obscure reason, Miss Marple's debut. For a child, it was an accessible read because Christie's prose was crisp, clean and clear. No big words to frighten off the early reader. So whenever I was stuck for reading material, I picked up The Murder at the Vicarage. Of course, much of what was going on beneath the surface of the story was lost to me but I did love the way the mystery was developed and then unpicked. It was the first crime novel I ever read and I suspect at some level the frequency with which I sampled it imprinted me with the notion that grown-up books had to have dead bodies in them.
I developed a taste for crime fiction, which I carried on reading widely. I read village mysteries and hard-boiled American private eye novels, spy thrillers and police procedurals. But the first crime novel I read that gave me an inkling that this was a genre that could really flirt with moral ambiguity and examine the mainsprings of motive was Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley. I was fascinated by the way Highsmith sucked me into colluding with Ripley's twisted manipulations of reality. I realised the crime novel had possibilities I'd never really grasped before. Here was a form that could wrestle with human psychology, with morality and with the pressures and problems created by the social environments of its protagonists. It was beginning to dawn on me that these were possibilities I might enjoy engaging with as a writer.
The book that crystallised my ambition was Sara Paretsky's Indemnity Only. Paretsky was one of the first 'new wave' feminist crime writers who emerged in the US at the start of the 1980s. Her heroine, V.I. Warshawski, was a private eye, an intelligent, ferociously independent woman with a finely-honed sense of justice and an absolute commitment to stand up for the individual against whatever vested interests were arrayed against them. V.I. was indignant at injustice, provoked by pomposity and sarcastic in the face of bullying. In her debut, I saw a vision of the kind of book I could aspire to writing - one with a strong, moral female protagonist, a vivid sense of place and politics, both personal and social. I'd finally found my home.
All that was left was for me to find my voice. I've always cared passionately about good writing - the kind of prose that echoes in the head and heart, that makes me catch my breath and pause to re-read it, that provokes a tingle of envy and the desire to do as well. I aspire to a better than decent prose style, and if I had to pick one contemporary novel that shines for me as a beacon of how I would like to be able to write, it's Jeanette Winterson's The Passion. She writes with flair; she can be flashy and pyrotechnic. But there's not a dull paragraph in that book, and it has as much substance as style. 'Trust me, I'm telling you stories.'
So, there we have it. A scatter of milestones along the road that helped form my own novels. A handful of books, each of which spoke to me at a time when I was receptive to what they had to share with me. The interesting thing about this exercise is that it's made me wonder how things might have turned out differently if I hadn't bumped into those particular books when I did. Would I have found a different path altogether? Or would I have ended up in the same place via a different route? Unanswerable questions, I suppose. Ah well, back to the bookshelves.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]