Val McDermid explains how the Bible prepared her for adult prose and how Kate Millett helped her discover her own sexuality.
Author Val McDermid has sold over ten million copies of her books worldwide and been translated into more than 30 languages. She’s best known for her Tony Hill and Carol Jordan crime novels—the latest instalment Cross and Burn (£7.99) is out now in paperback.
I used to spend a lot of time staying with my grandparents. This was the only book (besides the Bible) in the house and was my introduction to adult crime novels. I was nine years old. It’s the first Miss Marple case and Christie was at the peak of her powers. I found it fascinating how she constructed all the different side plots and relationships alongside the main story arc. There wasn’t much money for books in our family, but we lived over the road from the library. I’d steal my mother’s card—“I have to get a book for my mum, she’s not well”—so I could get into the adult library and work my way through all Christie’s novels. It became imprinted on my mind that a book had to have a dead body in it!
This swashbuckling adventure, with a young cabin boy pitted against a man at its heart, totally captivated me as a child. Jim’s journey and the island seemed so exotic, and I loved all the characters—Long John Silver was wonderful, with his wooden leg and parrot on his shoulder. I first stumbled across the story in comic-book form and couldn’t wait to get the full-length novel. Growing up in Scotland, I went to Sunday School every week and read the Bible, so I was never afraid of tackling grown-up themes or prose.
When I was at Oxford in the early 1970s, a friend lent me this book and it changed my life more than any other. As a piece of literary criticism written from a feminist perspective, it deconstructed everything I’d read and blew my mind. I felt like my head was on fire—here was a completely different way of looking at the world. It made me a feminist and opened the door for me to understand my own sexuality, which was pretty crucial for a happy ending to the rest of my life. I’ve met Kate a couple of times, but I go all fan girl and become quite speechless in her company.