McDermid, Cornwell, Hawkins star in BBC documentary Serial Killers

McDermid, Cornwell, Hawkins star in BBC documentary Serial Killers

The BBC is airing a new documentary on BBC One tonight (29th November) about women who write crime fiction, featuring prominent crime writers Val McDermid, Patricia Cornwell, Martina Cole, husband-and-wife author team Nicci French, Sarah Phelps and Paula Hawkins in interview with presenter Alan Yentob.

The aim of the programme "Serial Killers: The Women Who Write Crime Fiction” is to explore why - with 21 billion crime novels sold last year - the readers of crime are mostly women and more often than not, are the writers too. The same riddle earlier this year sparked the launch of a new women's crime festival in London, Killer Women, set up by a collective of female crime writers including Hawkins.

The BBC's programme begins with an introduction to the study of forensics and continues in a series of interviews with the authors, and with one editor, Trapeze's Sam Eades, as well as with forensic professionals actively dealing with cases, such as Professor Sue Black who has been assisting McDermid with her research for 20 years.

Hawkins talks about The Girl on the Train (Transworld), accompanied by clips from the film, and, despite the literary sensation it became, reveals she originally expected it to be "quite a quiet book". Meanwhile Phelps is interviewed on the appeal of Agatha Christie and Eades on the comeback of warmer cosier crime fiction. There are also interviews with the husband-and-wife team behind Nicci French, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, and with Cole about her past and why she writes about the ganglands of London's east end.

In conversation with Cornwell, America's biggest selling crime writer, the BBC explores the author's motivations for writing about such graphic killings, and her fascination with Jack the Ripper that has turned her LA apartment into a self-made museum of Victorian crime paraphernalia. It also documents how, earlier in her career, she took up a full-time role as an assistant in a mortuary while researching her first Scarpetta novel. 

Patricia Cornwell and Alan Yentob. Picture: BBC/Kev Robertson

Reflecting on the beginnings of her career, the programme probes how Cornwell felt about the reception to Postmortem (Sphere), before which autopsies weren't a staple of crime fiction. Cornwell called it "a bad time"; the book's subsequent ban from a local bookshop "because it was too graphic and violent" was picked up by the news and she was "uninvited" from the few signings she had picked up. She talks about the "dilemma" she faced then: "how do I make this entertainment without adding to the problem as I already perceive it, why I am so offended by this. 

"I thought, you only have two choices: you either turn your back and don't do it or you get right in there, from Scarpetta's perspective, and you show violence for what it is. You don't celebrate it, you condemn it, but that was a conscious decision of mine."

The programme moves onto the work of Professor Black, McDermid's long term consultant, even covering the pickling of bodies after authors indebted to her clubbed together to help fund a brand new state of the art mortuary (with body tanks named after sponsoring crime writers). Dame Professor Black recently secured a book deal with Transworld for Living with Death, scheduled for early 2018.

McDermid reads from her book The Mermaids Singing (Harper) and comments on the topic of gender, saying the last time she did a body count for her books it equated to 12 male, 12 female and one transgender. "I think it's harder to get more equal opportunities than that really", she said. 

McDermid added: "There's all sorts of ways I'm described, I'm described as a female writer, a lesbian writer, a Scottish writer. They're all true but they are only a part of my identity. People like to put labels on things. Personally I think labels are for jam. I'm not even sure to what extent there is any value in calling someone a crime writer these days. Genre boundaries are blurring more and more with every passing year. I just do the work I'm doing because it matters to me and I really don't really care what you think about it."

"Serial Killers: The Women Who Write Crime Fiction” is on tonight at 10.45pm on BBC One.