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McDermid, Val (b. 1955)  
 
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Prolific Scottish mystery writer Val McDermid has three very successful series of novels and has been the recipient of numerous awards for crime fiction. Several of her works have been adapted for television.

Val McDermid comes from Fife in the coal-mining region of eastern Scotland. She was born on June 4, 1955 in the town of Kirkcaldy and grew up there. An only child, she was frequently in the company of adults or off on her own, sometimes spending whole days abroad in the countryside with only her dog for company. Her parents were of the working class, but they realized the value of a good education and also strongly encouraged their daughter to read as much as possible. Because of her love of books McDermid "developed a secret life of the imagination" at an early age.

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McDermid recalls feeling "different" as a child but at first attributed the sentiment to her desire to become a writer, which indeed was a far cry from the typical occupations in her small hometown. Eventually she came to understand her sexual orientation, and her relatives proved supportive when she came out to them. "When I realized I was gay, no one stopped speaking to me," she said. "I wasn't cast adrift for bringing disgrace and shame upon the family."

The school system in Fife saw McDermid as different in another way--as a student of exceptional promise. She was selected for the "1E" program, in which one or two outstanding pupils per year were advanced a grade and taught in a special class. McDermid found this beneficial in that it gave her "a lifelong habit of hard work and the expectation of success," but because the "1E" children were set apart from their peers, it also "left her with an abiding sense of being an outsider."

Because of her academic success, McDermid was accepted by Oxford University at sixteen, one of the youngest students ever admitted. She studied in St. Hilda's College there, earning a bachelor's degree in English in 1975.

After graduation she embarked on a career in journalism. She started at the Plymouth and South Devon Times, where she won the National Trainee Journalist of the Year award in 1977.

McDermid returned to Scotland to write for the Daily Record in Glasgow. After a few years, however, she moved back to England to join the staff of the Sunday People in Manchester, a publication that had a good reputation for its investigative reporting.

McDermid spent about a decade with the Sunday People but eventually became dissatisfied with the direction that the paper had taken. "I saw it change from an investigative newspaper with good human interest stories into another one of the gutter press," she commented. McDermid quit her job as a journalist in 1991, but by that time she was already a published novelist.

Of her first novel, which she wrote at twenty-one, McDermid, with characteristic humor, would later remark that "the best thing I can say about it is that I actually finished it." Publishers were not impressed, but at the suggestion of an actor friend, she made it into a play, Like a Happy Ending, that was included in the Plymouth Theatre Company's series of new plays by new writers. She adapted it again for BBC radio in 1981 and subsequently penned two more radio plays, Clean Break (1998) and The Right Chemistry (1999).

McDermid, however, continued to aspire to write novels. She calls reading Sara Paretsky's first mystery novel "the defining moment" for her because it was "a mystery with an urban setting that dealt with comtemporary women's lives, that didn't shy away from engaging with the politics of the society it reflected, and that was fun."

She began writing her first crime novel in 1984. McDermid chose to make her lesbian sleuth Lindsay Gordon a reporter because, she said, "I had no idea how police investigate a murder, but I knew how journalists do their job." The response to Report for Murder upon its publication in 1987 was, in McDermid's wry words, "a resounding silence."

Undeterred, she brought Gordon back in her next two books. There are at present five mysteries in the Lindsay Gordon series, but McDermid realized that she "was never going to make a living out of lesbian crime fiction." She introduced her second detective, heterosexual private investigator Kate Brannigan, in Dead Beat in 1992 and has written five more novels in that series.

McDermid's third series features the crime-solving team of psychologist and profiler Dr. Tony Hill and police detective Carol Jordan. The debut novel for the pair, The Mermaids Singing (1995), was a great success and earned McDermid the prestigious Crime Writers Association's Gold Dagger Award.

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Top: A portrait of Val McDermid by Alan Peebles.
Above: A portrait by Mimsy Moller.

  
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