As a writer I am always keen to find out how other writers tap into their creative process, and the opportunity to delve into the mind of such a prolific writer as Val McDermid in this one-off event was too good to miss. So I was puzzled to find the auditorium at the Assembly Rooms only about two-thirds full. This may have been because her fans normally expect to catch her at the Book Festival. Which they will.
McDermid, resplendent in a rainbow top, opened by explaining that the popularity of crime fiction is hinged on a fantastical release of what many of us would like to do to others - particularly our nearest and dearest on the odd (or frequent) occasion. Women in particular, it seems, have much need of this release; we are raised not to be violent but to play nicely and expected to internalise our violent thoughts more than men. McDermid related the story of an older woman who, each Monday for years at her local library, borrowed a handful of crime novels. Then suddenly she moved on to other fiction. When she was asked about this sudden change, she replied that her husband had finally popped his clogs so she had no need of murder fantasies any more.
The other reason crime novels are so popular is that they provide a safe platform for fear in a similar way to riding a rollercoaster - there is very little likelihood of bad things happening in real life but the adrenaline thrill is exciting and makes us feel more alive.
McDermid is a colourful and humourous person, full of warmth and charm, quite in opposition to the dark nature of her work. She explained that dealing with big emotions through her writing was like going through therapy and being paid for it. Indeed, it seems that all crime writers, unlike writers of other types of fiction, are a very jolly bunch and can often be found still propping up the hotel bar the following morning at book festivals.
The biggest surprise of the event was learning about the influence of Enid Blyton on McDermid. The Chalet School series was important in particular, as Blyton shows former pupils as teachers and university graduates; McDermid was inspired by one character who became an actual paid novelist.
The session ended with a Q&A and McDermid’s fans proved an intelligent bunch. Hardcore criminal camaraderie was exposed upon a crime novel virgin’s question; ‘Which novel should I read first?’ The answer came with murmurs of approval - A Place of Execution. If you’re wondering where to start with the genre, it’s there.