Message From The Author

Val McDermid

Genre: Procedural, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

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Author's Message

Miners and Villas and Murder, Oh My!


By Stephanie Klose

Though Scottish mystery author Val McDermid claims that she used to be obsessive about plotting out her novels prior to writing, she says that somewhere along the line, "The art of the synopsis parted company with me." Despite critical acclaim and a string of awards, she started wondering whether she had written all she was going to.

It turned out that she just needed a different approach. Now she practices what E.L. Doctorow referred to as "driving at night" writing, where "you know where you started from and where you want to end up, but the rest of time, you can only see a little way ahead of you."

It's a feeling her readers know well, being swept along on an exhilarating ride that starts out with a crime and whips along the dark and twisted roads that will eventually lead to a resolution, though anything could -- and probably will -- jump out of the bushes along the way.

Her latest release, A Darker Domain, a stand-alone and her first from Harper, stars Detective Inspector Karen Pirie, a cold-case detective in Fife, Scotland, who made an appearance in McDermid's 2004 book, A Distant Echo.

The author says that she didn't plan to connect the books, but "When you need a cold-case detective in Fife and you already have one, it makes sense to use her."

D.I. Pirie and her partner, Phil Parhatka, take on a case in which a missing person, coal miner Mick Prentice, has been gone for more than 20 years, having disappeared one night during the 1984 coal miners' strike. Everyone assumed he'd gone off with a group that crossed picket lines elsewhere in the country, leaving his family behind. But when his daughter tries to track him down in 2007 to see if he's a bone marrow match for her critically ill son, she learns that he'd never been with the "scabbing" miners.

At the same time that Mick's disappearance is reported to D.I. Pirie, Bel Richmond, an investigative reporter exploring a ruined villa while on vacation in Tuscany, finds new evidence in the 1985 kidnapping of heiress Catriona Maclellan Grant and her infant son, as well as what appear to be signs of recent violence. Cat was killed during the ransom payoff more than 20 years prior, the kidnappers were never caught and her son was never found. The two investigations first run parallel, then connect.

The split timeframes that have become McDermid's signature in her stand-alone novels "just happened," according to the author. "The past casts a long shadow," she says. "There is often a gap between justice and the law -- what the law can do for us and what is actually just and right," so that looking at crimes from the distance of several decades can place the events in a larger context and lead to insights that were not presenting themselves at the time the crime occurred.

McDermid developed Bel's part of A Darker Domain after coming across a ruined villa during a Tuscan vacation in 2001. People had been squatting at the villa and obviously fled in a hurry, leaving a lot of their belongings behind.

She was still cogitating on how to build that plotline into a book when politician Gordon Brown, now Britain's prime minister, made an offhand comment to her at a football match about his wife thinking it was time she wrote another book set in Fife. (Although Brown and McDermid have since moved to England -- she divides her time between Manchester and Northumberland -- both still support their hometown team, the Raith Rovers.)

This request for a rural Scottish setting, plus the need to figure out a believable reason to delay having Mick reported missing for more than 20 years, led her to incorporate the miners' strike. McDermid's grandparents lived in a mining town and she spent a lot of time with them growing up. "They are communities I know and understand."

During the '84 strike, McDermid covered the events for a small newspaper. Reporting, she says, is a valuable experience for a writer in that it "gives you direct access to people in extreme circumstances and allows you to see how people behave under pressure."

She's putting that experience to work these days by writing the next installment in her series about clinical psychologist Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Inspector Carol Jordan. The BBC has turned the earlier books into a TV series, Wire in the Blood, now in its sixth season.

When she's not busy writing or gathering ideas from world leaders for future books, McDermid spends her time with her wife and son, playing pub quiz, making music, indulging an affection for The West Wing, The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street and, like her fans, enjoying "good writing wherever I find it."

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