This year, the special moment for me is a very personal one. Back when I was first struggling with the idea of writing a crime novel, the central problem I had was that British crime fiction of the time fell into two broad strands – police procedurals and village mysteries. I didn’t feel remotely at home in either of those worlds. Then a friend who had moved to America sent me a copy of Sara Paretsky’s debut novel Indemnity Only. It introduced the Chicago-based private eye V.I. Warshawski. V.I. was unlike any other detective I’d encountered. For a start, she was an independent woman under pensionable age. She had a brain and a smart mouth and she wasn’t afraid to use either of them. She took control of her own investigations without the need to get a man in when things got tough. She was someone to identify with and aspire to.
But there was more than that to recommend Indemnity Only to me. One of its strengths was its sense of place. The city of Chicago was at the heart of the novel and Paretsky wrote about it with the joy and frustration of someone who both knew and loved the place. The books that stay with me as a reader are the ones that summon up their settings so vividly I can imagine myself on their mean streets. Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, John Harvey’s Nottingham, Laura Lippman’s Baltimore, Ruth Rendell’s London. Years later, when I visited Chicago for the first time, I felt I was already familiar with the place thanks to Paretsky’s novels.
But a sense of place is about much more than a physical summoning of the scenery. A writer who truly gets under the skin of their locale reveals that understanding in the nature of the crimes they write about. These are not random murders bolted on to arbitrary locations. They’re events that have their roots in the territory where they happen. Like wine, these homicides have terroir. They belong to their setting. So Paretsky writes about crimes that are particular to Chicago and the kind of people who live there, involving everything from garbage disposal to local sports teams, from big business to Homeland Security.
Which brings me to the other quality I was delighted to find in that first V.I. Warshawski novel – passionate politics, both on an individual and a social level. Warshawski is someone who cares. That concern and compassion for people is what drives her as much as her desire for justice. Time and time again she puts herself on the line for the people she loves and the principles that matter to her. Sometimes I want to give her a good shake, tell her to back off and take more care of herself, but I know how pointless that would be.
All those ingredients that have coalesced to make Sara Paretsky a consistently challenging and entertaining crime writer were there from the beginning. Over the years, she’s grown in skill and craft, engaging with complex and shocking stories of how power left unchecked becomes its own worst enemy as well as ours. But right at the start, I knew I had encountered something very special.
More than that – I had found the springboard for my own unformed ambition. I wanted to write the kind of crime novels that engaged the heads and the hearts of my readers, that explored issues that mattered to me without ever becoming tub-thumping or special pleading. Because of the way Sara Paretsky used her voice, she helped me to find mine.
And here we are, more than thirty years later, coming together on a stage at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. Sara will be the first of our Special Guests to appear this year, and that’s fitting, because without her example, many of us wouldn’t be where we are today. When I step out on that stage to interview her, the honour will be all mine. And yes, the hair on the back of my neck will be standing to attention.
For more information about the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival where Val McDermid will be appearing on stage with Sara Paretsky this year, you can visit the official website here.
The latest book in the Tony Hill series by Val McDermid – Splinter the Silence – is out on the 27th August 2015 and is available to pre-order online today as a Hardback or eBook. You can find out more about Val McDermid on our website.