Authors: Val McDermid
Foreword by Ian Rankin
Copyright Â© 2005 by Val McDermid
Ian Rankin foreword copyright Â© John Rebus Ltd. 2005
First published in Great Britain in 2005 by Flambard Press.
Grove/Atlantic, Inc. wishes to thank Flambard Press for permission to use their files.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 154 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10011 or
Copyright this collection Â© Val McDermid 2005
âMittel' copyright Â© Val McDermid 2003, first published in
(Comma Press, 2003)
âDriving a Hard Bargain' copyright Â© Val McDermid 1996, first published in
The Mail on Sunday
âThe Wagon Mound' copyright Â© Val McDermid 2002, first published in
âBreathtaking Ignorance' copyright Â© Val McDermid 1996, first published in
The Crazy Jig
âWhite Nights, Black Magic' copyright Â© Val McDermid 2002, first published in
Crime in the City
(Do-Not Press, 2002)
âThe Writing on the Wall' copyright Â© Val McDermid 1994, first published in
(Chatto & Windus, 1994)
âKeeping on the Right Side of the Law' copyright Â© Val McDermid 1999, first published in
The City Life Book of Manchester Stories
âA Wife in a Million' copyright Â© Val McDermid 1989, first published in
Reader, I Murdered Him
(The Women's Press, 1989)
âA Traditional Christmas' copyright Â© Val McDermid 1994, first published in
Reader, I Murdered Him Too
(The Women's Press, 1994)
âThe Girl Who Killed Santa Claus' copyright Â© Val McDermid 2000, first published in the
News of the World
âSneeze for Danger' copyright Â© Val McDermid 2004, commissioned and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 (2004)
âGuilt Trip' copyright Â© Val McDermid 1995, first published in
(Ringpull Press, 1995)
âHomecoming' copyright Â© Val McDermid 2004, first published in
(Arts Council online anthology, 2004)
âHeartburn' copyright Â© Val McDermid 1995, first published in
Northern Blood 2
(Flambard Press, 1995)
âFour Calling Birds' copyright Â© Val McDermid 2004, first published in
âThe Consolation Blonde' copyright Â© Val McDermid 2003, first published in
(Little, Brown, 2003)
âMetamorphosis' copyright Â© Val McDermid 2002, first published in
âWhen Larry Met Allie' copyright Â© Val McDermid 2000, first published in
The New English Library Book of Internet Stories
(New English Library, 2000)
âThe Road and the Miles to Dundee' copyright Â© Val McDermid 2004, commissioned by New Writing North in 2004 and previously unpublished
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
154 West 14th Street
New York, NY 10011
Distributed by Publishers Group West
Also by Val McDermid
A Place of Execution
Killing the Shadows
The Distant Echo
The Grave Tattoo
A Darker Domain
Trick of the Dark
The Vanishing Point
The Skeleton Road
TONY HILL NOVELS
The Mermaids Singing
The Wire in the Blood
The Last Temptation
The Torment of Others
Beneath the Bleeding
Fever of the Bone
Cross and Burn
KATE BRANNIGAN NOVELS
LINDSAY GORDON NOVELS
Report for Murder
Booked for Murder
Hostage to Murder
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
The Writing on the Wall
Christmas is Murder
A Suitable Job for a Woman
assion. Obsession. Revenge.
These three words would make a great tagline on a movie poster, and they are subjects Val McDermid tackles in her short stories. The mark of great shortstory writers, however, is that they not only unsettle their readers, shaking us out of complacency, but that they explore the psychology of human interaction. In his book of modern aphorisms,
The Book of Shadows
, the poet Don Paterson includes the following: âA mercy, I suppose, that it ended. Any deeper intimacy with each other's anatomy would have involved a murder.'
Val McDermid could almost have written those words, including that wry and tangy âI suppose'. Of course, in Val's world things often go far beyond Don Paterson's imaginings, because the crimewriter recognises that love is the most destructive of emotions. It turns worlds upside down and people inside out. It can so easily turn to lust, or envy, or loathing. It can, and often does, lead to violence, both emotional and physical.
Val has always been a restless writer â the journey through her fictional universe could never have been made by a single, consistent hero or heroine â and the shortstory form suits her, allowing her to pick apart relationships with a furious skill, highlighting flaws and jealousies. The readers can see tragedy and horror emerging while the participants cannot. And always there are those twists awaiting us, just when we think we've seen it all. But Val is no fatalist: a dark humour infuses many of the stories here, and one story â âThe Road and the Miles to Dundee' â is very different to the others, allowing the author to explore her roots and the strong pull of family and background. It's a hugely moving tale and one which shows her extraordinary range.
Those who have read her novel
Killing the Shadows
will be unsurprised that Val has a dark view of the writer's life, exhibited here in no fewer than four stories. Her writers harbour dark secrets or painful memories, or are driven to act out revenge tragedies not dissimilar to the ones they write about. I only hope I never get on her wrong side . . .
I should, right at the start, have laid my cards on the table. I've known Val for years. But before I knew her, I knew her books. I was intrigued by the author biography on her early jackets. It seemed to me we must have grown up near one another. And so we did: five miles apart, yet we first met in Seattle, where we were both attending a crime-fiction convention. We went out drinking and talking and â eventually â singing. Since then, we've shared experiences which would make decent short stories in themselves . . . except that few people would believe them. The short story, after all, unlike real life, has to convince us that it could have happened, or might be happening right now. And this is the real trick of a good short story: it has to pull us into its world straight away, convincing us with immediately recognisable characters. Once snared, we can begin our descent into the dark confines of the plot.
There are stories here which will make you shudder, and which will linger long in the mind. Tiny worlds of hurt and healing: the hurt we do to each other; the healing that comes with recognition. The recognition that we have these potentials within us. It's up to us to choose between good and evil, love and destruction.
icture a city, its architecture a mix of Austro-Hungarian empire and former Eastern bloc. A mix that should sit uneasily together but instead fits comfortably from long familiarity. Picture this city, its long strings of trams dominating wide streets that feel dusty but which are in fact surprisingly clean. Picture this city, its inhabitants going about their imaginable business, their pace brisker than by the Mediterranean but more sultry than in its colder northern sisters. Picture this city. Call it Mittel.
And in this city, a street. And in this street, a cafÃ©. And in this cafÃ©, a table. And at this table, a woman. And in her hand, a pen.
What she is writing is not important. It is not part of the lesson she has to teach you. The fact that she is writing at a table, alone, however, is part of that lesson.
You have spent years living with a different woman, one who never understood that when you were irritable or impatient it was seldom with her. It was simply your way of externalising other stresses, other frustrations. And it made you crazy, her inability not to take this personally.
And now the wheel has turned and you are in love with a woman who is sometimes distant and shrouded. And you are slowly grasping the fact that this is seldom anything to do with you. It is simply her way of externalising other stresses, other frustrations. And you are having to learn not to take this personally.
You walk up to the table in the cafÃ© in the street in the city of Mittel after the agreed length of time has passed. And now the sun is out. Her smile dazzles you with its warmth. And suddenly the tumblers click, the juggler hangs seven balls in the air and you know you've done the right thing. âPerfect timing,' she says.
Yes, you think. But it doesn't last. Every time you take a run at it, your feet stumble on unexpected cobbles. And there's always a good reason for it, a reason that makes perfect sense to both of you, but a reason that still leaves you feeling bleached and split like driftwood on the shores of love.
At last, you call her on it. âIs everything all right between us?'
Apparently surprised, she says, âOf course it is.'
âOnly, you haven't touched me since we got here. I'm not talking about sex, I'm talking about just touching me, kissing me, holding me.'
âYou know I'm not comfortable with public displays of affection.'
âI know that. But I'm talking about when we're here together, in bed, in our room, in the hotel. By ourselves.'
âI'm nervous about my presentation today,' she says. âAnd I'm tired. And this bed's uncomfortable. And it's hot. And I'm premenstrual. And I find it hard to combine work and pleasure. And it's not fair, I'm not even awake.' And she turns away because she doesn't want to feel your eyes on her.
You tell her you love her. She grunts, âLove you too.'
So you keep your distance all day. You leave her to talk to everybody else, to dazzle them with her discourse, which she does supremely well. You notice this, in spite of your efforts not to let her feel you're scrutinising her. You stay back, out of her face, give her space. And at last, at the end of the afternoon, you're back at the hotel, there's the prospect of a couple of hours together before the evening marathon of more presentations in languages neither of you speak.
Listen to this. A city where the low boom of church bells calling the hours is lost in the rattle of rain on cafÃ© awnings. Breathe this. A city whose market square is heavy with the perfume of strawberries and lavender. Imagine this. A city where wars have left recent scars and where history is alive and kicking, where conversations turn to conflicts on the turn of a nuance. And in this city, a hotel. And in this hotel, a room. And in this room, a woman. She's standing behind you, fingers tentative on your shoulder blades. You wish to fuck she'd stop it. You told her right at the start that you don't do reassurance. Your self-sufficiency makes you impatient of neediness. And today, with an unnamed anxiety gnawing at you, making her feel better isn't something you're capable of.
You love this woman. You've opened yourself up to possibilities with her. You don't do commitment, but you've committed to her by the simple â but for you, infinitely complicated â act of telling the people you care about that you're with her and you're happy. But sometimes you wish she was a million miles away. She's easier to love at a distance when her need surfaces and makes demands on you that you don't want to meet. Sure, you are touched by her pain. And there are times when you are proud to be the one that this strong woman is willing to be vulnerable with. But sometimes it's just too damn hard.
You know you're not always fair to her. She'd pay whatever it took to love you, and all you're required to do is to make a space in your life big enough for part-time love. But she's not a small, insignificant person. She's big in every way and she's already carved a niche in your world. Her name follows you round at work and at play. Her face insinuates itself at unlikely and unpredictable points in your daily existence. You turn on the radio and her voice fills the room. And sometimes her ubiquity even in her absence feels like suffocation, her very generosity a trap.
You want this to work, more than you've wanted anything for a long time. You want what she brings in her gift â reliability, intelligence, good humour and a sense of a future that contains what you both want. And you do want so many of the same things; truly, you do. You know because you've both spent a long time working them out before either of you even knew that you would end up letting this love breathe.
But still you shrug away from the stroke of her fingers. Just a tiny movement, almost imperceptible but enough for her to get the message. From the corner of your peripheral vision, you see her hand jerk back.
âWhat do you want to do?' you say. âIt's probably too late in the day for a museum or a gallery. We could go back up to the old town. Or look at shoe shops.' This last with a grin. You know her weakness for footwear.
âI don't care,' she says. âThis is the last time we'll have alone together for ages. I don't mind what we do. I'd be happy to stand on a street corner in the rain as long as I'm with you.'
You know she means it. You picture the two of you locked in an embrace on the busy corner of the street, oblivious to the trams clattering past, the traffic cop dressed in white directing the cars and buses, the umbrellas parting around you as the rain pours down, plastering your hair to your head, running in rivulets down the inside of the collar of your leather jacket. You imagine the tender warmth of her lips against yours, the feel of her body soft against the stiff leather, and you know you love her enough to do it too.
âOK,' you say. âLet's go.'
And then she reaches for you, hands at your waist, eyes pleading. And it's gone, the dream of love in the rain on the street corner.
Your hands flutter up in a defensive gesture. âI'm not . . . I can't . . . I'm not in the right place for this.'
You see the hurt she tries to hide and you hate the way she can make you feel bad for nothing more than being who you are.
Out in the street, the rain falls relentlessly. Two blocks from the hotel, she stops abruptly and says she doesn't want to walk. âYou go off and do your thing,' she says. âI'll catch up with you at the presentation.'
You smile. It's a real smile and you see that register in her eyes. And suddenly, surprisingly, she's smiling too. And her smile is a mirror of yours in its genuineness.
And that's when you understand it might just be fine.
Picture a city. A city whose tacky souvenirs include a pair of wooden figures sheltering under an umbrella. A city where statues of heroes are turned to face the direction of the latest enemy. A city that tries not to wear its hurt on its sleeve. Picture this city. Call it Mittel.