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Scots crime author Val McDermid recounts tales from days as tabloid hack

When the pandemic shut down the world, it posed a problem for Scotland’s crime queen Val McDermid.

Her publishers were expecting a new book but the world was in a “scary” place and the best-selling author was in a quandary.

All of her novels are set in the present and because of the uncertain times we were living in she didn’t want to write a book when nobody knew where we would be in 2021.

“The only thing I could do was go back to a time I knew. I’d been toying with the idea of writing a sequence of novels set at 10-year-intervals so I picked 2019 as the last ‘normal’ year and worked my way back to the so-called winter of discontent.”

Jane Hamilton with Val McDermid

And 1979, her 35th novel and her first new series in 20 years is the result.

Allie Burns is a cub reporter with the Daily Clarion – a fictional newspaper in Glasgow – and Val draws on her own 16-year experience as a journalist, including two years at the Daily Record, to take us on a thrilling Scottish adventure that undoubtedly cements her regal status in literary circles.

“Allie Burns isn’t me but of course there’s some little anecdotes in there that really did happen, my publishers have been asking me to do my memoirs for years but that can’t happen, a lot of people would have to die first before I could write my life story, “ she said.

Val came to the Record in July 1977 at a time when the newsroom was dominated by men, and female reporters were tasked with the “soft” stories.

“Babies, I was always being asked to write about babies,” she said.

“I had a fair few run-ins with news editors because I wanted to work on the hard stories or I would challenge the misogyny that was rife at the time. I didn’t always agree with how stories were covered.

“The males were aggressive reporters but there was a substantial amount of news stories being covered.

“I didn’t really get big stories to do at the Record, I was one of three women there but once I was on the night shift and did fall accidentally into one.

“The news editor and editor had gone to the pub, as was the norm in those days, the other night shifter was out in his car doing something so it was just me manning the news desk when the copy taker came over and said a Press association news flash had come in saying the Pope (John Paul I) had died – a month after the previous Pope (Paul VI) died.

“The night editor said it was a splash and a spread and we needed to be off stone in half an hour so I phoned the pub to get the news editor back and he thought I was taking the p*** and put the phone down on me.

“We hammered the copy, got quotes and managed to get out the splash and spread. I was just thinking that was something else doing that but then the news editor came back and went ballistic at me saying I should have tried harder to get him out the pub! He didn’t bank on me matching his anger.

“I just had to use that story in my book. The Record does get a mention along with some legendary real-life journalists from the time.”

“I tried not to take s*** from anybody but I didn’t always succeed. One editor used to call me ‘killer’ – he said, ‘If you send her out she’ll kill it dead.’ after the Record, I moved to The People and stayed for 12 years.”

As a reporter in Manchester, Val covered all the major crime stories of the day, including Hillsborough, Lockerbie, the Yorkshire Ripper and the aftermath of the Moors Murders.

She has the distinction of being the first reporter to get a sit down chat with Moors Murderer Ian Brady’s natural mum.

Scots crime author Val McDermid recounts tales from days as tabloid hack
Crime writer Val McDermid working at the Daily Record in the 1980s

She said: “I found out she was living in Manchester so I went to her door with a box of shortbread and got in and got a full chat. I maintained a relationship with her over the years and would pop in now and then with shortbread.”

And to mark off the full bingo card as a tabloid hack, Val recounts one funny story when she was beaten up by 70s wrestler Big Daddy.

“I had the job of going to his door when a story came to us that his wife had left him for another woman. I was the fifth person at his door that day, told him who I was and he just went mental.

“He came at me with fists flying and I’m running up the stairs in his garden and he’s chasing me throwing punches at my back and at my head. The snapper had already legged it to his car.

The front page the next day was ‘Big Daddy Beats up Our Val’.” Without giving away spoilers, Burns sniffs out a big scoop – a home-grown terrorist threat linked to Scottish independence. as plots go, it hooks you from first to last page and with her usual twists and turns, Val dishes out the sharp shocks her fans have come to expect.

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She’s at the peak of her powers and the 66-year-old, who lives in Edinburgh with her wife Jo Sharp, isn’t planning on slowing down any time soon.

“I’m having too much fun,” she said. “Life would be too boring.”

And so say all of us.



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