barry forshaw, book addiction, bookaddiction, books, Crime Fiction, cyberbullying, daniel mcnaughton, mcnaughton rules, politics in fiction, sian busby, sir walter scott, splinter the silence, the guardian, val mcdermid
Val McDermid is not a women to be bothered by the gothic macabre of tombstones, as an encounter in an Edinburgh graveyard reveals. The location was chosen by The Guardian’s culture reporter Hannah Ellis Petersen, and “came from the misguided belief that an author who has spent her life writing about murder might feel at home surrounded by graves. It turns out that the atmosphere of the place is completely lost on her”.
McDermid is bothered, it turns out, by things which shape the lives and well-being of her legion readers: not truth and justice in their ethereal forms but the day to day effects of social injustice and gender inequalities on individuals. “If I was a 16-year-old now, I wouldn’t be going to Oxford, that’s for sure, and therefore wouldn’t have had any of the opportunities that opened so many doors for me back then”, McDermid says. “I really worry we are heading more towards the Victorian ethic where those who have the capacity to claw their way to the top will do, and the rest will be sweeping the shit out of the doorway. We’re going back to Bleak House”.
McDermid is well-known as an activist, speaking out on such issue as Scottish independence, equality and social cohesion but, as Ellis Petersen notes, she doesn’t use her crime novels to expose her politics directly. There’s a fabulous mid-interview retort from McDermid: “Once you start murdering MPs, where do you stop?” As Sian Busby’s McNaughton – a novelisation of the story of Daniel M’Naghten who in 1843 shot the civil servant Edward Drummond in the back, mistaking him for the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel – demonstrates, even attempting to murder an MP can have far reaching, and not necessarily progressive, consequences. A Scottish woodturner, M’Naghten had paranoid delusions – at trial his prosecutors and defence agreed on this– and was held not guilty on grounds of insanity. The verdict spawned a raucous outcry from the press, Parliament and the Queen (Victoria had herself been subject to assassination attempts) against the court’s leniency, and led to the retrograde ‘McNaughton Rules’ as the standard test for criminal liability in relation to mental health. Had ‘ the rules’ been applied to M’Naghten himself, he would probably have been found guilty and hanged rather than spending the rest of his life confined first in Bethlem and then Broadmoor. It would be another 100 years before anyone could again successfully argue in a UK court that an offender was not criminally responsible if the crime had been committed as a result of a mental defect.
This isn’t to say that McDermid denies a place for politics in her fiction. As she wrote in an article (also published in The Guardian) earlier this year “these positions don’t usually hit the reader over the head like a party political broadcast. If it is not subtle, all you succeed in doing is turning off readers in their droves. Our views generally slip into our work precisely because they are our views, because they inform our perspective and because they’re how we interpret the world, not because we have any desire to convert our readership to our perspective. Except, of course, that sometimes we do”. Nor is it a responsibility she wears lightly. Speaking of the perceived disconnect between politicians and the public, she reflected: “When people lose trust in politicians, they need to find it elsewhere. Maybe, because they trust writers to tell some kind of truth buried in the fictions, we’re being listened to in a way we rarely have before. And that’s a scary thought”.
Splinter the Silence (published today in the UK under the Little, Brown imprint – the hardback edition contains a bonus short story), sees the popular psychological profiler Tony Hill team up again with former DCI Carol Jordan to investigate a series of apparent suicides linked to the most modern, cruel and criminal phenomena of cyberbullying and abuse over social media, the dark and disturbing side of humanity exposed under the anonymity of internet trolls.
McDermid tells Ellis Petersen that she found the online violent and sexist abuse levelled at her friend J K Rowling when Rowling aligned with the ‘no’ campaign in ahead of the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum “profoundly depressing”. She points to an “instinctive misogyny….when a woman says something that in any way erodes on white male privilege…The vileness of the abuse is astonishing…[W]e have felt over the past 20 years that feminism has made steps forward…So I was thinking things had changed, that the next generation of men weren’t as institutionally misogynist as the previous were. And then suddenly the internet came along, and gave them a platform to voice their feelings anonymously. And boy, did the bile come out”.
Most of the pre-publication reviewers of Splinter the Silence have revelled in the return of one of McDermid’s most popular characters. Little, Brown herald it as “her most gripping, chilling, suspenseful novel yet”. There is a splattering of reviews (all positive) on Goodreads already, among them one from Liz Wilkins who comments that the “series has not even shown a hint of growing old, the quality, readability and just sheer addictiveness of it grows with every single novel and Splinter the Silence is no exception”. Few (Barry Forshaw, writing for The Independent, aside) have commented on the inherent feminism underpinning of the storyline. Yet is exactly this which lifts McDermid beyond readable into the re-readable echelon. Sir Walter Scott drew a distinction between ‘ephemeral’ novels which supply ‘the regular demand of watering places and circulating libraries’ and those which deserve ‘an attention from the public far superior’. Writers who more usually attract the accolade of great as measured, say, by the Nobel Prize or Man Booker judges or academic acceptance by within the perambulatory literary canon are often constrained in their ability to do immediate good – to entertain or to influence – by a tiny readership. McDermid’s writing inhabits that difficult space between Scott’s extremes of easy popularity and serious profundity, making her one of today’s most important writers. She is, of course, also a phenomenal story-teller.
Val McDermid’s Splinter the Silence is published in the UK today, 27 August 2015, by Little, Brown.
I spotted this tweet from Chris Brookmyre shortly after I posted this article. Seemed appropriate…
— Chris Brookmyre (@cbrookmyre) August 27, 2015