Author of the Month

Name: Val McDermid

First Novel: Report For Murder

Most Recent Book: The Vanishing Point

''The Vanishing Point' merely re-affirms McDermid’s high priestess status of the crime genre.'

When Stephanie Harker is stopped at the security gates of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, her little boy Jimmy walks ahead and when she is stopped after setting of the metal detector, Jimmy is taken away by a uniformed guard as she is given a more thorough search.

Stuck on one side of the security barrier Stephanie tries to get him back and is forcefully stopped by the guards. Unaware of Jimmy’s presence the guards restrain Stephanie as Jimmy is abducted before her eyes. By the time she has told them of their mistake Jimmy has vanished.

As Stephanie is questioned by the FBI it quickly becomes clear that nothing is as it seems with this woman and the child who was travelling with her. Questions arise over Jimmy’s background and why someone would target him for abduction. As time ticks by Stephanie has to find a way to get Jimmy back.

Being honest from the start, if someone who had read this book told me about the full plot then I would have made the mistake of not reading it. McDermid has taken a subject very far from my heart and reading tastes and turned it into a spectacular psychological thriller which captivated me beyond belief. It is quite simply outstanding and is the best book of hers that I have read yet. (And I’ve read almost all of her books)

To explain a little without giving spoilers, McDermid tells a tale of the kind of person who least interests me, with such sublime skill and characterisation that I was captivated by the unfolding events. I read this book late into the night and in the morning before going to work and even while at work the characters were always in the back of my mind. Even the one I didn’t like.

As ever McDermid’s prose is faultless and her clever use of different timelines and first & third person viewpoints carries the story forward with a seamless grace. While not the most pace driven novel I have read this year the story unfolds naturally and is so compelling that an injection of pace is unnecessary.

Stephanie is a perfect lead who makes the ideal narrator for the events surrounding the central characters of Scarlett, Pete, Joshu, Jimmy and Leanne. Through Stephanie’s eyes the reader is treated to the usual high calibre characterisation and insights into human behaviour which are McDermid’s trademarks.

With twists and turns to keep the reader guessing as the pages fly by, there is never a dull moment and I firmly believe that with this novel Val McDermid has exceeded her own high standards. I once called McDermid the queen of the psychological thriller, for me, 'The Vanishing Point' merely re-affirms McDermid’s high priestess status of the crime genre.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) What was the spark that started the idea involving Scarlett and what inspired you to write her story?
I can’t say in detail without giving away some crucial plot twists, but it arose from an idle conversation with a video director while we were setting up some filming. She said something that set me wondering, ‘What if…?’ And ‘What sort of person would gain from…?’
2) Stephanie was viewed in two different perspectives across two different time frames. Was this hard for you to achieve and what obstacles did you have to overcome to get it right?
As always with standalone novels, the key to writing the book is finding the structure. Until I discover how the story can be told, it’s just an anecdote, a series of events without connective tissue. Here, I ended up using a format where Stephanie tells her own history, but not in a literal way. Obviously, the narrative the reader experiences isn’t straightforward reportage of what Stephanie tells Vivian McKuras during their interview. It’s more like an interior version of the past, a story-telling device to communicate with the reader. The hardest part of that was getting the voice right. I move between first and third person to try to make it easy to distinguish between the two time frames. But I think my readers are sophisticated enough to understand what’s going on in the book!
3) What research did you have to do to get right the celebrity lifestyle of Scarlett?
I did wade through some celebrity biographies and became, briefly, an avid follower of OK and Hello. We writers have to suffer for our art. Frankly, I’d much rather have spent those hours talking about forensic anthropology with Professor Sue Black. It would have been more fun.
4) A lot of ‘The Vanishing Point’ has very little to do with crime although a crime is very central to the whole plot. Why did you choose to make the crime almost a background to Scarlett’s story?
This is how the story came out. The process of putting a book together for me means trying out lots of different possibilities for the direction the story will take. What I end up with is what makes most sense to me and also what seems interesting to write about. I think all my books are concerned with the exploration of character under pressure. And that pressure sometimes comes obliquely. The crime doesn’t always have to be front and centre. In ‘A Place of Execution’, for example, the crime is always the thing you catch out of the corner of your eye.
5) Stephanie’s day job is that of a ghost writer for celebrities penning autobiographies. How much of your own ethos and work habits did you weave into Stephanie’s accounts of her writing?
Not much. I was a journalist for long enough to know that ghost writing would drive me crazy. I don’t write to order. I don’t have to deal with other people’s prima donna demands. I have the luxury of writing what excites me in the terms I choose. The only real similarity is that we both treat what we do as a job. When it’s the time of year for writing the book, then yes, I get up and go to the office and do what has to be done. But it’s a very different process.

Luckily, I know a couple of people who have had successful careers ghost-writing and I was able to draw on their experiences and work habits.
6) One of the central characters is a nasty piece of work and harasses Stephanie mercilessly. Another peripheral character is a stalker. Other than the obvious addition of them as suspects, why did you add the dark sides to these characters?
Because my name isn’t Pollyanna? I live in the world. My books reflect what I see, hear and read in the world. Celebrity attracts weirdness. Everyone I know who has had any sort of brush with the public eye has had unsettling encounters, moments of genuine anxiety and sometimes truly threatening confrontations. And a depressingly large number of women have been harassed in varying degrees by people with whom they have had or are having relationships. I think most of us know this from our own acquaintance. So it’s not just for the sake of red herrings that I write such characters into my work. It’s because they’re out there.
7) When planning a novel what do you feel is more important to ‘pin down’ a story in its development – plot or characters?
They’re equally important and they feed off each other in a biofeedback loop. Mostly the story idea comes first for me, but that is meaningless without a cast of characters whose qualities dictate the possibilities.
8) You have always swung from one series to another and for the last ten years since ‘A Place of Execution’ alternated between a standalone and a new addition to the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series. Have you always preferred to have alternatives when choosing what book to write?
I get bored easily so I can’t write two books back to back with the same characters. But I’m lucky. I always seem to have plenty of ideas kicking around in my head to keep me busy. It’s not a matter of preference, it’s the way that it is, thank goodness!
9) You were quoted as saying that Robson Greene was your ideal embodiment of Tony Hill. Do you still have Robson in your mind’s eye when writing about Hill?
Yes. Because Robson was physically very close to the Tony Hill in my head. It doesn’t happen with the other characters.
10) You haven’t written about Kate Brannigan or Lindsay Gordon for some time now. Do you think you’ll ever write about either again or do you feel you have already told their stories?
I never say never… If they shout loud enough, they could return.
11) It has recently been announced that you will be writing the follow up to ‘Northanger Abbey’. How daunting is it to be given the responsibility of handling such a classic novel and how different will be your writing process from writing your contemporary novels?
It’s not a follow-up. It will be a contemporary reworking of the story and themes of the original. So it will be set in the here and now, which means I don’t have to attempt the impossible task of recreating Jane Austen’s style.

But it’s still a pretty terrifying prospect. Austen has always been a favourite of mine. I’ve long admired her command of style, her wit and her ability to skewer a character in a single phrase. To attempt to write something that bears comparison with her work is a challenge. But what she wrote about is still what is at the heart of our lives today – love, family, how to get by. And that’ll be at the heart of what I write.
12) What would you say would be your top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
For very different reasons:

Agatha Christie: The Murder At The Vicarage
William McIlvanney: Laidlaw
Reginald Hill: On Beulah Height