Edinburgh Book Festival Review – Val McDermid & Denise Mina

August 16, 2007

Val McDermidA buzz of expectance hovered over the assembled audience on Tuesday evening, awaiting the arrival of two of Scotland’s favourite female crime writers; Val McDermid and Denise Mina.

From the moment the two authors arrived on stage, it was apparent a certain amount of mayhem would be the order, as not even the compere for the evening could get a word in edgeways alongside these two literary giants. It was as though a finely tuned comedy double-act had swung into operation, with ad-libs and comical one-liners being rattled off with such expertise, even ex-comic and fellow crime writer in the audience, Mark Billingham, had to bow to their delivery talents.

Yet when they began to talk seriously, one could sense that being serious came just as easy. On revealing their motivation for continuing to write successful crime novels, both writers confirmed it was “for fear, for panic, for shame – and for chocolate.”

Denise MinaDenise Mina was born in Glasgow in 1966 into an engineering family, which saw her doing the oil-rounds of Europe as she grew up. After leaving school at the earliest opportunity and falling into several dead end jobs, she began a Law Degree at the University of Strathclyde. In her final year she included Forensics in her Thesis, and from there was the origins of the perfect crime writer; life experience, academic knowledge, and writing talent.

Her first novel, Garnethill, won the Crime Writers’ Association John Creasy Dagger award, and this saw the start of a highly successful trilogy completed with the publication of the follow-up books, Exile, and Resolution. Three more books have followed including the third in her series of five, called The Last Breath, which was published this year.

Explaining that she gets a lot of her ideas from small paper reports or radio clips, and that she “loves to watch violent movies,” one begins to gain a sense of the reality of the life of a successful crime writer. She does little research, but then with her academic background, probably doesn’t need to. Mina confirms that she “prefers to find out what she doesn’t first, so that she knows what to research afterwards.”

Val McDermid is similar in her approach to research and to how ideas for her novels form in her mind. She tells a captivated audience how she “enjoys exploring why we are drawn to violence as a society, and enjoys doing this as a woman.”

“It’s a fantasy,” she continues, “because we put ourselves in that situation and we can take out our violent streak without actually having to do it.” It’s at this point McDermid recalls the story of the woman who visited a book shop in Derbyshire for years, buying six crime novels every Monday morning for several years. One day she came into the store and bought six romance novels, and the store owner, worried that she may have had a bad experience while reading one, asked her what the problem was. “Nothing,” replied the old lady. “My husband died last week so now I don’t have to fantasise about killing him any more!”

Val McDermid is the author of 24 books, under a mixture of popular mystery protagonists. Hailing from Kirkcaldy in Fife, she was the first student to be accepted to St. Hilda’s College, Oxford from a Scottish State school. Knowing she would never fit into the nine to five lifestyle she became a journalist for the next 16 years.

Her first novel, Report For Murder; The First Lindsay Gordon Mystery, was published in 1984, and from there she never looked back. She has since become a household name, won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award for Best Crime Novel of the Year, and seen her Hill/Jordan novels adapted for television and broadcast as the Wire In The Blood series.

The discussion of the evening revolved heavily around the role of females within the crime writing genre. Both authors agreed that most readers tend to be female, and generally speaking, “Female buy both, and male only buy male.”

A sense of injustice could be felt as the two authors explained their feelings towards the imbalance they perceive within the industry, that male authors get more of the credit, interviews, kudos, and improved contract deals. One of Mina’s pet hates was gently revealed to be the amount of times male publishers or readers have commented that, “My wife loves your books,” as she tours the UK doing signings.

McDermid was more vocal on the subject, telling the audience of the time she was seated next to the WH Smith thriller buyer at a convention. “I didn’t realise there would be so much reading,” the man had said to her, followed up swiftly with, “and I don’t read books by women either.” Her face said it all.

From there McDermid’s sexuality also became an issue when she revealed her disgust towards a “prominent Scottish male crime writer,” who last year was quoted as saying, “the best violence is written by females, and the worst by lesbians.” One couldn’t help but feel the voice of gay rights preparing a speech and shouting out from somewhere, but the moment passed and the conversation moved on.

Val McDermid and Denise Mina are both fascinating woman and fantastic writers in their own style, and it was a pleasure to listen and watch them interact in front of a packed house.

To see what the fuss is about, go out and buy their books – there isn’t a shortage of them to choose from.

Related Links

~ Colin Galbraith ~



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