VJ Books Blog

(connpost.com, jan. 16, Joe Meyers)

With so many “literary” novelists turning inward and away from broader social concerns and traditional storytelling, readers have been enjoying crime fiction in larger numbers each year.

A genre that was once viewed as essentially escapist — cozy little murders in cozy little towns — is now the place to look for stories that tell us how people live and die all over the world.

You could make a strong argument that some of the finest novelists writing today are working in the mystery and crime fields.

Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos are just three of the many “stars” on this side of the Atlantic and the popular and critically acclaimed crime writers in the United Kingdom include Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell and P.D. James.

Another U.K. star, Val McDermid, will be kicking off her U.S. book tour for “A Darker Domain” (HarperCollins) in Westport on Feb. 9.

The Scottish novelist has two dozen books to her credit. The Observer in London has called her “one of the world’s leading mystery writers … Thomas Harris crossed with Agatha Christie, if you will…”

A series of books McDermid has written about criminal profiler Dr. Tony Hill were turned into the highly successful British television series, “The Wire in the Blood.”

“I do think that many works of ‘literary’ fiction are too concerned with academics — certainly that’s true in the U.K. and Europe,” McDermid said in a phone interview from England last week.

“I think they started writing for theoreticians rather than readers and that created a vacuum,” the author added of the many fine writers who have gravitated to crime fiction to comment on contemporary life and to tell good stories.

“I think some of the literary people are rediscovering the power of narrative,” McDermid said of writers such as Kate Atkinson.

“A Darker Domain” is a prime example of a crime novel that manages to encompass politics, sexual relations and social changes as it examines two unsolved crimes of the mid-1980s — the disappearance of a union activist during the terrible strikes of the 1980s and the kidnapping of the daughter and grandchild of one of the richest men in Scotland.

McDermid digs into the two cold cases through a pair of terrific investigators — Detective Inspector Karen Pirie and a crack newspaper reporter named Bel Richmond.

The author said the idea of doing a story dealing with the lives of miners and the strikes of the 1980s has been in the back of her mind for many years.

“I did want to go back and write about the community I grew up in,” she said of her childhood in Fife where many of her relatives worked in the mines. “I was just waiting for the right story.”

“Finally the tumblers clicked in place … why a guy is missing but nobody thinks he’s missing,” McDermid said of the vanished miner, Mick Prentice, who many villagers believe left town to become a scab, but who may have met with foul play.

“It’s always a matter of accretions,” the writer said of the rather slow evolution of an idea into a story. “I seldom have one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments where I think, ‘This is the book!’ ”

McDermid is one of the most collegial crime writers, often taking time away from her work to attend fan and writer gatherings, such as the yearly international “Bouchercon” conference.

I asked the author why it is that crime writers as a group seem to be so much more friendly — and helpful to their peers — than the “literary” crowd.

“Yeah, it is odd, but it must have something to do with the way we write about these things. We’re constantly having to look at our own history — a period where we lost somebody or the rage of betrayal after a splitup. I think the simple process of dragging all of that material out of the attic — the process of a life examined — allows us to dispose of that stuff that can make so many people so miserable,” she said.

Val McDermid will talk about ‘A Darker Domain” on Feb. 9 at noon in the McManus Room of the Westport Library, 20 Jessup Road. For more information, call 291-4840.