Mystery Readers Journal: Shrinks and Other Mental Health Professionals (Volume 27:4). This issue is available as a PDF or hardcopy. Val McDermid will be at a Literary Salon in Berkeley, CA tomorrow, January 26.
Val McDermid is the author of 24 bestselling novels. She has won virtually every mystery award, including the Crime Writers Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for outstanding Achievement in the Field of Crime Writing, as well as the Pioneer Award from the Lambda Literary Awards.
Val McDermid: Method and Madness
The Mermaids Singing, the book that introduces my clinical psychologist and criminal pro-filer Dr Tony Hill, is unique in my experience as a writer. For the one and only time, the plot dropped into my head fully formed. The shape of the story, the nature of the criminal, the cruces of the plot and the occupation of the detec-tive; they were all there from the very beginning. It was a great gift, but it brought its own set of problems.
I’d been intrigued by the idea of using a pro-filer in a novel ever since I’d read Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. But the most rudimentary research had revealed that, as in so many areas, in the UK we do it differently from the US. Unlike the FBI, who train their own officers in the famous Behavioral Science unit at Quantico, we Brits have traditionally used practising clinical psychologists to consult with detectives. Right there, I knew I had a built-in area of dramatic tension; cops never like outsiders coming into the heart of their investigation.
Which was all well and good, but I still had no real idea how it worked in practice. No other British crime writer had written about this relationship, so I couldn’t crib anyone else’s research. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t imagine for a moment that Greater Manchester Police—notorious back then for their hostility to the media—would blithely hand over the details of whoever they worked with. I was stumped.
And then one evening I turned on the local news programme on TV halfway through a item about a clinical psychologist who worked with the police on offender profiling. Hastily I scribbled down his name and where he worked. If he’d talked to the TV, he might just talk to me.
Next day, I called the secure mental hospital where he worked and asked to speak to him. To my surprise, I was put straight through. I hadn’t expected that, and I suspect my explanation for why I was calling him was a pretty stumbling affair. When he finally understood what I was asking, he said, ‘How do I know you’re not a nutter?’
It was a good question. I suggested sending him a couple of my published novels so he could decide for himself. He agreed. I sent the books off and heard nothing for a few weeks. Then he called me and said, ‘I read your books. So did my wife. We don’t think you’re a nutter.’ And he agreed to meet for lunch.
We ended up in an Indian restaurant in Southport, a genteel seaside town on the Irish Sea, where conversation does not generally run to serial homicide. Over our set lunch, he gave me a brief outline of his professional life, touching on the kind of patients he dealt with in the hospital and the types of crime he helped the police with. The more he talked, the more excitement I had to disguise. I could see so much potential in what he was telling me, it was hard not to jump up and down.
The second time we met, he took me inside the secure mental hospital where he worked and showed me a couple of live cases he was working on. He took me through every step of his proc-ess, starting with the crime scene photos and ending with his report. He explained painstakingly how he arrived at the conclusions he delivered to the police. By the end of the afternoon, I had Tony Hill’s method. And that has remained at the heart of what Tony does ever since.
I had the method, but I didn’t have the man. When I started The Mermaids Singing, I intended it to be a standalone, so when I started thinking about the character who would be at the heart of this book, it was tempered by what I needed him to be capable of for the sake of this particular story. So, for example, his impotence was not intended as anything more than a plot point that I needed to make sense of his interaction with another key character. I knew that he was someone who struggled with the normal building blocks of social intercourse too; the clue is in the title of the book, which comes from TS Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.” The narrator of the poem is a man who yearns to be part of the world of love and affection, but he feels like he’s trapped behind a glass wall, unable to connect. My central idea was that both Tony and the killer should share this perspective; that they had much in common, but that at some crucial point, they had diverged in terms of the direction taken.
More than that, Tony had to be someone the reader cares about. I gave him a potentially lethal dose of empathy, a self-deprecating insight into his own foibles, and the capacity to love Carol Jordan. He’s an oddball, but his personality con-nects sufficiently with the rest of us for him to be an oddball for whom we feel affection rather than irritation.
Seven books in, I am still developing the seeds I sowed in that first novel. We have discovered his monstrous mother, the person who first saved him from bleakness, and the man who sired him. We’ve followed him to the edge of hell and back again. And what underpins it all is his understanding of the way people work. I’ve got no formal education in psychology, but I was a journalist for years and observed people in all sorts of situations. Really, the Tony Hill method is an extrapolation from that observation, salted by common sense and spiced with bits and pieces of knowledge I’ve picked up along the way. And I’ll be writing Tony Hill for as long as I can find fresh and interesting things to say about human beings.
Hard to see how that could ever stop.
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