The waitress at the Renaissance St. Louis Grand Hotel bar brings a bowl of potato chips. “You’re bad,” Val McDermid, the Scotswoman across the table from me, in town as the International Guest of Honor for Bouchercon, the annual mystery conference, tells her, “very, very bad.”
I want to tell the waitress that McDermid knows from bad. She’s the creator of criminal profiler Dr. Tony Hill, who spends his days in the company of some of England’s most violent offenders, also McDermid’s creations along with the cop who helps catch them, Det. Chief Insp. Carol Jordan. I also want to tell her how McDermid makes crime and the people whose lives are intertwined in it so enthralling. But when the waitress nudges the bowl forward and tells us to dig in, I just take a chip and smile.
, McDermid’s seventh in her Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series, is due out in January from Grove Atlantic. It’s her first book with the publisher after leaving HarperCollins—“it didn’t work out,” she says gruffly—and adds that she’s excited at the new prospects. Bywater Books, an independent publisher of contemporary lesbian writing, owned by McDermid’s wife, Kelly Smith, published her last book, Trick of the Dark, in September. With the global market, “one of the things I felt was crucial was that publication dates come closer together between the U.S. and the U.K.,” she says, something that Grove Atlantic is willing to accommodate. “I was just so impressed by their attitude. It was an attitude of positives and ‘we can do this,’ and what we can do rather than what we can’t do.”
The Retribution sees the unwelcome return of a familiar face: Jacko Vance, the handsome yet sadistic serial killer from 2002’s Wire in the Blood. Even though McDermid has said she doesn’t have a grand plan for Tony and Carol, I wonder if she planned for Jacko to return when she first wrote about him nearly a decade ago when he was a devilishly charming talk show host with a penchant for killing teenage girls. “I didn’t really think it at the time, but I suppose of all the adversaries they’ve had, Jacko had the most potential to return,” McDermid says, before pointing out that “quite a few of them are dead, frankly.” On the whole, killers and the like don’t have the best track record facing off against Tony and Carol.
We talk endlessly about Tony and Carol, as if they’re people we know, friends we care about who are going through a rough patch. I ask McDermid about her recent pattern of alternating series installments with stand-alones, and she admits, “I don’t like to do two books with the same characters back-to-back because I get bored. Giving it a bit of space seems to rekindle my excitement so that when I come back, it’s like people you haven’t seen for a while, and you want to catch up with what’s been happening.” As much as this series is about the crimes and their solutions, it’s also about the partnership, friendship, and relationship, such as it is, between two damaged people. For McDermid, “the connection between Tony and Carol, how it defines itself at any given point, is kind of like a shark: it always has to keep moving forward. It can’t stop. It can’t be a domesticated animal lying on the rug in front of the fire.” Leave it to McDermid to compare the relationship between her two characters to that of a giant predatory fish.
On the subject of violence, McDermid is weary. Certain questions she’s fielded time and again because her books deal with grim subject matter. “Sometimes it’s necessary,” she says, while American football players clash on the TV in the bar, “to show what violence is and what it does. I think there’s a fine line between being exploitative and doing what is necessary. In my head, I stay on the right side of that line.” She reminds me that she’s not writing “bloodless crossword puzzles,” and I assure her I’m glad she’s not. “You know,” she says, eyeing the bowl of chips still sitting on the table, “I’m not here to bring comfort and joy.”
Jordan Foster is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.