Tag Archives: Val McDermid

Christmas is Murder

You’re not all done with Christmas, I hope. Although, apart from its title, Val McDermid’s Christmas is Murder isn’t primarily Christmassy. Some of the twelve stories are seasonal, but many are not. Which is fine, as I believe Val was after creating Christmas crime reading like the Norwegians do at Easter (when I suspect not all the murders are egg or chicken related).

I had just about despaired after a couple of good, but too dark [for me] stories, when Val hit me with a traditional style ‘pleasant’ murder, which cheered me up no end. The preceding murders had been of people who didn’t deserve to be killed…

The most interesting story is a Sherlock Holmes one – Holmes For Christmas – which takes the reader in an unexpected direction. Quite fun. But it set me thinking about whether you are allowed to write more of someone else’s stories? With Sherlock Holmes I feel we are always getting new material, be it written or on screen. So I don’t know whether Watson being addressed as James in one instance meant anything, or if it was an unfortunate mistake.

Anyway, once the stories became a little less dark, I enjoyed the collection. And for anyone into same sex relationships, there’s much to discover.

Thoughts on Christmas shorts

For her birthday I got Daughter a Christmas crime anthology, edited by Martin Edwards. (How that man manages to fit so much into his time, I will never know!) I reckoned she’d enjoy reading about gruesomeness at Christmas, or rather, in the run-up to that peaceful time. In the snow. She did. She hinted she wanted more (because the clever publisher listed further reading suggestions at the back of the book).

I had calculated on this success, so had obviously bought her a second collection, also edited by Martin. We just had to wait for Christmas to come. And after watching the event with Val McDermid last month, Daughter felt that Val’s new Christmas murder story anthology would also be essential for her happiness.

I shopped some more.

Now I have started reading the first one, the birthday gift, and it’s very promising. The trouble is, I feel these stories really are best consumed during the month, or so, around Christmas. And I’m running out of time here. Once the sprouts have been cooked and the dishwasher’s been seen to, and a few other chores, I appear to have very little time left.

Other people watch endless television and go for walks and do jigsaw puzzles and even read books. (You should have seen me watch the other two do a jigsaw. I might have managed to put about 25 pieces in their places, but they were left to find the other 975. I did the green bits. There were not many green bits at all.)

At this rate I’ll be saving the anthologies for December 2021.

‘What if you’d been dead?’

That’s crime writers for you; coming across an unusual event with a happy outcome, and then making it worse by killing someone [in a book]. In Meet the Author event with Dr Val McDermid, organised by the University of St Andrews on Tuesday afternoon, Val described how she came to write The Distant Echo by murdering former students, and how someone unwittingly provided her with the spot for the original death.

This was a well-run online event, as you’d expect from a leading university, when treating their students to a talk by one of their Honorary Doctors. After an introduction by the Principal, Sally Mapstone, Val talked to Professor Gill Plain, who teaches a crime fiction module. With two new books, Val had lots to say. Still Life is her new crime novel, and then there is her 2020 bonus book, the Christmas is Murder anthology.

Sitting in her library, with a lovely Christmas tree next to her, Val talked about various aspects of her writing career, and not only stuff I’d heard before. At the beginning of the year there was only Brexit as a cloud on the horizon, until it became obvious that there would be more. Her yearly pattern of writing, followed by events, was broken, and the short crime stories in Christmas is Murder filled a gap.

Val had a bout of Covid in March; 17 days when she can’t really account for what she was doing. Writing took longer when spending a lot of time on following the news. The online events she did lacked the sense of camaraderie she loves, and she misses the conversations with colleagues. Walking with friends helps.

She doesn’t think people will want to read Covid books. Coming up with an idea for a quintet of novels set in 1979, 1989, 1999, 2009 and 2019 respectively has given her some breathing space.

Meanwhile, we have her new short stories that were a struggle to write, including the one titled Holmes for Christmas… Val hopes for a Christmas equivalent of Norway’s Easter crime reading.

The conversation moved on to Hamish’s hipster porridge. Yes, really. Seems Val has been ‘Cooking the books’ on YouTube. There will be a Christmas special, and maybe one for New Year, but she will call it quits while she’s still having fun.

Generally she knows where she will start a book, and where it will finish, but the road in between she can only see glimpses of as she writes. For the new Karen Pirie novel, Val had to make up some sort of art, which turned out to be a collage of a person, cut into pieces and reassembled as a portrait. Or something like that. And it’s important to keep track of what you are withholding from the reader. She introduced a new detective as a plot device; someone who might now stay on.

When asked who people will still read in a hundred years’ time, she hoped she’d be one of them, but more seriously said it will be the game-changers, and compared this to who we read today, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and Allingham and Marsh. Authors with memorable characters. So perhaps William McIlvanney, Patricia Highsmith, P D James and Thomas Harris.

I shall have to look into these cooking sessions.

The greats on a Sunday

Sunday nights are generally for some of the best, kept until last. The pattern seemed to hold, with Mark Billingham talking to John Connolly, followed by Val McDermid with Lee Child, and I settled in for some fun.

The first two talked football, at Bloody Scotland and elsewhere. John wants to play for Scotland if he ever makes it to Stirling. Mark thought he’d be made welcome. They moved on to fashion and women’s tights, dwarfs, Snow White, and acting.

I like Mark and adore John, but really, they sounded like – almost – any pair of men, getting together talking about stuff that is no more interesting for having been uttered by a famous crime writer. I switched off.

Once dinner was over, I turned my attention to Val and Lee. It was Wyoming vs New York, 10 miles to the mailbox, long winters, Stetson hats and four-wheel drives. Lee has opinions on these vehicles, but also pointed out he has a different one ‘at his English place’.

There’s a problem with Tom Cruise, but not when he gives you a ride to the football in his helicopter. Other actors have the wrong accent, are too thin, too good looking, and so on. ‘The Reacher Guy’ hasn’t got it easy.

They most likely will not be writing about the virus, although Val had written a drama about plague when Covid started. One of those weird coincidences. Mrs Child had read a novel written in the past, set in 2060, and something viral having happened forty years earlier. The Spanish flu was not very visible in fiction, or so they said.

Lee admires Angela Merkel, and Bill Clinton. When Val had the temerity to mention Barack Obama, we learned that he hasn’t read Lee’s books. If that was me, I’d be reasonably proud to have met the man for long enough to be told he hadn’t read anything I’d written. In fact, I’d prefer for him not to be frittering away his time on my words, when there is a world to look after.

I like Val, and previously when I’ve seen her talking to women, she’s not needed to be quite so much ‘one of the boys’. Lee was pretty much the way he was 15 years ago. Authors only need to write great books. It’s a bonus if they are fun and witty and intelligent, but there is absolutely no need for them to be important, rich or cool.

So that was the 2020 Bloody Scotland. It was convenient to be able to ‘meet’ people at home, but it was nowhere near as much fun as in real life. For me personally, the main gain was not having to fight for the seat I want; the one at the back, nearest the door.

More gigs than rehearsals

There was less music than I had hoped for, or expected, but setting that aside, Friday night’s chat between the six members of The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers was great fun. It’s so strange that a bunch of novelists can just stand up – well, almost – and sing and play and actually entertain an audience with their music, including ending up playing Glastonbury.

An early opportunity was when three of them played at Bouchercon one year; an ‘accidental shambles that worked really well’ (according to Mark Billingham).

Val McDermid is the boss, as well she should be, and the five boys don’t enjoy it when she can’t be there to perform with them. But it’s not only performances that matter, they simply love getting together as a group, each enjoying being with the others.

Craig Robertson was doing the asking, and the starting question was what the first single they bought was. I like Mark! He got I did what I did for Maria, with Tony Christie. Val’s was a Beatles one, Chris Brookmyre liked Skids, Stuart Neville got the ET soundtrack… Yeah. Doug Johnstone, I think, because he wasn’t on screen so it was just a voice admitting to Michael Jackson. Little Luca Veste, as the baby of the group, was grateful for the best decade ever in the 1990s, and he bought an Oasis single (but also likes early Britney…).

But ‘nobody should ever be ashamed of music’ as Stuart put it.

They were all rather mean to poor Chris, who was invited to join them for one song and never left, returning with new guitar playing skills and everything. According to Stuart Chris is so good that he might have been one of Stuart’s pupils! He’s so keen that he once joined them for the second half of an event, because he had his own book event to do first, so couldn’t come sooner.

Early on Doug agreed to be their drummer, because they are hard to find, while guitarists are ten a penny.

Reykjavik without Val had been scary. Some of them would have preferred to turn around and go home again. As Val said, ‘the team is greater than the sum of our parts’.

Their Spiegeltent debut in Edinburgh was fantastic, a free event were the audience clearly expected nothing, but were greatly surprised. (It was packed. I suspect that’s why I wasn’t there.)

And then there was Glastonbury, where the modest Mark asked for too few drinks for them, on what was a very hot day. They were complimented for their crew being the best, except they were their own crew, so… It was ‘a bizarre and educational experience.’ (I’d say so! Stuart even did a Bookwitch thing; arriving supporting himself on a stick, hardly being able to walk, and then feeling just fine afterwards.)

The gang can’t wait to be back together in real life. Val and Doug have done a small thing in a bookshop in Portobello, but that’s all. After all, a group who are clever enough to come up with a song like Paperback Writer can’t be all wrong!

The 2019 EIBF launch

The launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme is the kind of event where when you squeeze past a couple of people to get to the Ladies, the people you squeeze past are Val McDermid and Jackie Kay. So you need to practise your best be cool at all times face, but I’ve got one of those. Except maybe when I arrived last night, and crawling (almost, anyway) up the stairs I came face to face with my EIBF boss Frances Sutton, and she was somewhat alarmed at my [lack of] Everest climbing skills. (I was carrying contraband, and it was very heavy.)

I arrived unfashionably early. But so did Mr and Mrs Brookmyre, whom I last saw four days ago as we left the Bloody Scotland launch ‘side by side.’ There was no avoiding Kirkland Ciccone and his selfie-taking mobile phone. But he was looking dapper, as everyone pointed out. I chatted to Eleanor Updale, and was introduced to Emily Dodd. There was a dog, too. Nice looking dog with very busy tail.

The proceedings were started by Allan Little, again, and it seems he’d promised not to cry this year, so he didn’t. He did mention it being D-Day and read a poem by A E Housman, and most of us didn’t cry.

This year the large tent will be the New York Times Main Theatre, as they are new sponsors, along with old-timers Baillie Gifford, and countless others. Also new this year will be live-streamed events from the Main Theatre, which sounds very exciting. We can, in effect, all be there.

EIBF launch 2019

As before, the triumvirate Nick Barley, Roland Gulliver and Janet Smyth presented ‘everything’ that will happen this August. As before, that’s far too much for me to mention here, so you need to look it up yourselves. Many big names will be appearing, as will many less well known people. My own experience is that most of these events will be worth going to, be they big or small. But, you know, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, former Prime Ministers, and a First Minister. Sheila Kanani. The new and old poet laureates. Konnie Huq, Malorie Blackman.

Finishing off with some Shetland poetry featuring a peat knife, it was time for more chat and more drinks. Eventually I even came across some vegetarian sushi (but I had my own sandwiches). Found out what Emily Dodd will be doing at the festival. Chatted to Kate Leiper. And then I lost Kirkie. Started walking to Haymarket for my train.

Phoned the Resident IT Consultant to ask where I was. Seems I made the mistake I almost made last year but didn’t, and this year I had come mapless, just to make my life more exciting. (Well, it’s not every day you turn 63.) Found Haymarket. Found Kirkie, too, on the train from Waverley. He didn’t know the way to Haymarket. But then it seems neither did I. He was sitting in a first class seat, but once I’d calmed down I remembered that those trains don’t have first class. It just looks like it.

So he didn’t get us thrown off the train, and it had been a first class kind of evening, and it didn’t even rain. It usually rains on June 6th.

Val McDermid – no singing in September

My heart sank as I walked up the slope towards the Golden Lion, where half of Scotland’s crime writers were milling about in the street. Not because of them, but they were milling next to the ‘wee tourist train’ parked outside. For a brief moment I was worried the launch of Bloody Scotland involved the train, but it seems they just ‘played’ on it.

Crime authors on wee train, by Paul Reich Photography

On reaching the ballroom anteroom upstairs, my heart sank again. Were we really launching in this hot little room with no seat in sight? We were. But I lie. There was the usual tartan-covered bench outside the room. I sat there, instead, doing my best to hear some of what was said.

Boss Bob McDevitt spoke, as did Val McDermid and various other people, including the Provost. The speeches were pretty much what you expect in these circumstances, until a cleaner squeaked past with her towel trolley and they closed the door.

The programme looks good, though, so I expect you’ll find me back at the Golden Lion come September. And hopefully also my colleague Lizzy Siddal who very kindly offered to share her photos of Val with me. I don’t deserve it, but that’s never stopped me.

Val McDermid by Lizzy Siddal

After a sandwich break, it was time for Val McDermid’s launch event, in the actual ballroom, with actual chairs. This crime writing star, who only mildly complained that the Bloody Scotland bloody logo doesn’t feature Fife, where she grew up, is heading to this year’s Glastonbury with her crime colleagues. To sing.

On Monday she was here to talk about her new book – My Scotland – alongside photographer Alan McCredie. The book features all the places in Scotland Val has included in her novels over the years. She’s a bit embarrassed about the title of this travelogue and memoir, which she reckons was easier to write than an autobiography, because ‘my life is quite dull.’

It was their first time doing the talk, so it counted as a work in progress. Val has done a lot in her time, beginning with the Fight for Fife, demolishing Wemyss Castle [in a book] and ‘opening’ a [temporary] pub in Edinburgh called the J K Rowling.

Now she’s off to be a professor in New Zealand, which is why she will have to give Bloody Scotland a miss. She might commit murder down under, but she only does what she has to.

If you ask me, they ought to have got Val and her band to perform for us. That would really have made for a memorable launch. Especially now she’s not singing in September.

Philip Pullman – Master storyteller

They were queueing for returned tickets from late morning on Saturday. That’s how much in demand Philip Pullman is, and will help explain why the book festival organisers had been after him to come back here for years. Last time, I believe, was when Philip had a couple of bishops to chat to in his event, so it must have been for his book on Jesus, in 2010.

But, she who waits for something good… and all that.

Philip Pullman

Philip did not sign books in the bookshop after. Luckily I discovered this before joining a non-existent queue. But with the new main theatre so enormous, I can understand that signings will be considerably harder than they used to be, when popular authors – well, it’s why they will have been put in the main theatre in the first place – could easily spend a couple of hours and more.

He did, however, sign as many books as there was time for, or maybe until his hands dropped off, before the event, so if you’re quick, you might still be lucky.

Val McDermid was the one chosen to chat to Philip, and you can’t really go wrong with Val. Although, I was quite shocked to discover that it was David Fickling who killed Frederick Garland. Or at least, was an accessory to the killing. Hmm.

Philip Pullman

It’s good that it wasn’t only Philip’s recent Book of Dust that got an outing, but that many of Philip’s books were covered. While Daughter didn’t manage to ask her burning question regarding more Sally Lockhart books (just hurry up with Dust!), it’s good to know they have not been forgotten.

To portray a strong woman, you don’t have to portray a man as weak. Obvious really, but not something everyone understands. Philip does have some of the best female characters, but there is nothing wrong with his men, and boys, either.

And as all wise authors do, he pointed out that we really need school libraries, and there needs to be librarians in them. People who can point readers in the right direction, based on what they’ve read already. People who read, in fact.

This sold-out event was great, and not surprisingly was attended by many of the festival’s guest participants. They could probably have run several events.

Philip Pullman

(Photos Helen Giles)

EIBF 2018 – Day 1

Philip Pullman and I talked about the weather, which was Goldilocks-like. Not too hot and not too cold. Not wet. Nor sunny. It felt very British, on this the first day of the book festival in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square.

Philip Pullman

It’s a new, streamlined square. Less higgledy piggledy, although no doubt more ‘character’ will find its way onto the fresh decking before long. I offered them my sandwich wrapping, but it seems they didn’t feel the need for it. I now know how they were able to make the Main theatre bigger. They picked up a whole theatre and put it in the middle of George Street. Very clever.

The Photographer and I arrived early and had a leisurely start, collecting tickets and getting to grips with all the changes, saying hello to press boss Frances, and gossiping with Theresa Breslin’s Mr B – whose t-shirt sported Mary Queen of Scots on the front and Rasputin’s dagger ‘in’ the back, so he had everything covered. Waved to Cathy Cassidy (wearing an unexpected red…), before venturing across to George Street to watch her signing in the much improved signing tent.

Cathy Cassidy

Holly Webb and Theresa Breslin

After noting that the festival regular with the magnificent beard was there again, we went to Theresa Breslin’s event with Holly Webb, chaired by Daniel Hahn. It was really full, despite Theresa’s grandchild choosing to go to see Terry Deary instead.

Chatted to Kate Leiper in the bookshop afterwards, and then went back to the behind-the-scenes decking where we found Philip Pullman with a pile of [his] books. Had a second go at chatting to Cathy Cassidy, and watched as Chris Close photographed an unknown, attractive female author who, when I got to my next event, turned out to be Tomi Adeyemi, appearing with Sophie Anderson.

Holly Webb and Theresa Breslin

Tomi Adeyemi and Sophie Anderson

This was another full event, and I realised that having left the Photographer to deal with Philip, I was on my own and needed to take pictures of Sophie and Tomi in the bookshop. I’m short, so was able to use the entrance for hobbits and munchkins. Saw Vikki Gemmell and wanted to say hello, but she ran away. Quite understandable.

There is a blur after that, but I definitely saw Linda Strachan and Lari Don, Gill Arbuthnott, Kathryn Ross, and Carol Ann Duffy. Val McDermid was around, as Philip Pullman’s chair. Someone came up to me and asked if I was Bookwitch, so I had to admit I was. Seems our paths have kept crossing, and now she wanted to say hello.

L J MacWhirter found me mid-prawn sandwich, and I had no idea that this would scare her off so fast. Didn’t mean to, L J! And while I was enjoying those prawns I watched as Chris Close commented on Jacek Dehnel’s outfit – it was very, erm, chequered – before persuading him to pose.

Jacek Dehnel

Ngūgī wa Thiong’o was being interviewed nearby, before also getting the Close photo treatment, and director Barley himself brought some more tartan for this venerable author.

Ngūgī wa Thiong'o

My Photographer returned when Philip Pullman’s sold-out event came to an end, and we gathered ourselves and went in search of a train home, hoping that seven was both early enough and late enough and would mean there was room for two tired witches. There was. Just.

(Photos Helen Giles + Bookwitch)

Bothies

If you come across the Resident IT Consultant’s red walking socks, just leave them where they are. I had already half decided they might need to be terminated, so forgotten and left behind is as good an end for them as any.

Speaking of ends, he is nearing his [walking the length of Scotland]. One more instalment, which I’ve been told is going to be easier than this last one. So far 26 days of walking have brought the Resident IT Consultant from Berwick-upon-Tweed to somewhere near Kylesku. No doubt he’d tell you it’s not, but it’s the one placename ‘up there’ that I know, so that’s how I will describe it.

Most of the time he has slept in comfort, either at home (instalments, remember) or in hotels or hostels. But this week the time had come for the bothy. Yeah, I know. At his age it feels a bit rough, not to mention uncomfortable.

When I told Daughter back in the spring that bothies would have to be used, she made one of those young person style comments about old people, often ones related to them. And then she went and bought him a book about bothies as a birthday present. He even seemed to like it, and he is one of the hardest people to buy books for.

There is now a second bothy book in the house as well. Where once I’m sure a book like that would have been thin and modest, with a few words for each bothy and all in black and white, they are now worryingly seductive. I mean, I would like to visit a bothy. If I didn’t have to walk there, and if they had beds and toilets. And as long as Val McDermid doesn’t go and kill anyone there.

So I really shouldn’t look at these books. All I can think of is how I would furnish each bothy if it was mine. It’s good that these small cottages and other shelters which are no longer needed for their original uses, can enjoy a new lease of life hosting walkers and letting them hang their wet socks up, and forgetting them as they walk on.

We’ve already decided the Resident IT Consultant can describe it as having ‘stayed at the Duke of Westminster’s little place in the Highlands.’