Simon Savidge: In your latest book, Retribution, you brought Tony Hill and Carol Jordan back for their seventh outing, as well as Jacko Vance who escapes prison. What made you want to bring a series back?
Val McDermid: I’ve always liked a series – as a kid I loved Enid Blyton’s books, and I have always been a big fan of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Poirot, so I think because I read a lot of them that might have been a part of it. I didn’t think The Mermaid’s Singing, Tony and Carol’s first book, would be anything more than a standalone. Yet I like the dynamic, and they seem to have lots of stories to tell, and possibly lots more. I wanted to bring Jacko Vance back simply because I had thought about him a lot, and I liked the idea of the past coming back to haunt people.
Do you think people who might be new to the Tony Hill series can read The Retribution by itself – might it possibly spoil Vance’s previous storyline?
I don’t think so. I tested that one on my wife. She doesn’t read my books as she finds them too scary, but because this one had a prior story she was the perfect person to make read it. I think there was only one point where I had to shroud something in more mystery and one where I had to make it clearer. There might be some spoilers given away but hopefully not too many – it’s nice if people want to go and read back.
How do you decide if a story is going to be a standalone novel or one for a series?
The story comes first and it tends to tell you which way you are going to go, if that makes sense. So I might get an idea in my head and think: “aha, that’s for Tony” or not. I seem to now be writing a standalone and then a Tony in a random sort of routine. In fact that’s the way the next two novels look like they will go too.
Have you been tempted to kill either Tony or Carol off?
[Laughs] I have been tempted… but I think if one of them died, especially Tony, but even if it was Carol, then that would be the end of the series. I think the same if I made them finally get together: that would be the two possible ending conclusions to that series. Not that that’s a spoiler.
Do you find it hard to keep up with what they have been doing over seven novels?
It can be yes, but I have a fantastic editor who seems to be a walking Tony Hill encyclopaedia, so that helps. I also re-read a lot of my novels, not in full but to get a gist.
When re-reading has there been any point where you thought ‘why did I do that’?
[Laughs] Yes, the fact I made Tony impotent has been a bit of a nightmare; he dabbled with Viagra, which was an interesting subplot.
How do you feel about being tagged with the ‘gory’ label?
To be honest, it really pisses me off. It’s lazy journalism from an article that came out about three years ago. That journalist clearly hadn’t read all of my books. Take Trick of the Dark: there’s no gore in that. With Tony Hill it’s different, he reads a crime scene in a very different way and that’s why we need to see what he sees and see how he works. It would be insane not to. I don’t give too much detail because we all know what someone’s imagination can do with a story is so much worse than what I could write. People’s minds can create very scary things all by themselves.
What about when people say ‘that’s not believable’?
That’s another one that makes me laugh. If people are picking up a crime novel they know they are not entering the real crime-fighting world. We all know that a serial killer can’t get caught quickly; we also know there is a huge amount of painstaking, and rather boring, work involved to lead up to the smallest clues. People know when they enter a crime novel its an escapist world, but one where you can try and work out who did it and why, or simply get scared, but safely.
Have you ever found yourself liking one of your villains or psychopaths?
Not the psychopaths, no. I mean these aren’t people you would want to go to the pub with. But they are all the more dangerous – you could actually sit next to one in a pub and not know. They do make very interesting characters, though you have to spend a lot of time with them, so I think it’s more an understanding than any appreciation for them.
The Retribution is your 25th novel – would you have thought this was possible when you first started writing?
Not at all. I thought that I might possibly write two or three books. I didn’t intend to start any series, and look what happened there. I just thought ‘let’s give this a go’; I still don’t believe that this is my job now.
Which fresh crime writers do you think will still be writing another 20 or so books down the line?
That’s a hard question. I think there are a few very interesting voices. Stuart Neville is an author who flourishes with each book. I hold a New Blood Panel at Harrogate Festival every year and from this year's selection I would say that S.J. Watson and M.J. McGrath are definitely ones to watch. They are doing things that are quite different.
The Retribution (Little, Brown) by Val McDermid is out now.