A forensic eye: Val McDermid unpicks our fascination with gritty TV crime dramas
VAL McDermid is telling me a story about a tiny bone in the ear. “It is so small that for a long time anatomists didn’t even count it,” the crime writer explains.
“But that tiny bone doesn’t change from the womb to the tomb. If you analyse that bone, it will tell you where your mother was living when she was pregnant with you.”
McDermid, 66, can rattle off a raft of intriguing details like this from her encyclopaedic knowledge of forensics, gleaned across 35 years of plotting novels packed with murder, suspense and insidious deeds.
As you might imagine, she has no shortage of fascinating anecdotes. Like the time that anatomist and forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black taught her how to break the hyoid, a small horseshoe-shaped bone in the neck.
Or when forensic chemist Professor Niamh Nic Daeid laid bare the damage that can be wreaked by fires in confined spaces, with a gasp-inducing video clip of a synthetic Christmas tree-turned-towering inferno after an electrical spark ignited its branches.
The ear bone McDermid mentions is one such nugget that the Fife-born author plans to incorporate into a book at some point: a tool that could help pinpoint the circumstances of a grisly death or provide important clues about an anonymous murder victim.
“The things that are still fascinating to me are what the anthropologists dig up,” she says. “The analysis they can do of your biological material to tell you things like where you lived.”
Tantalising titbits like these are woven throughout Traces, the TV drama starring Laura Fraser and Martin Compston, which returns to our screens for a second series this week.
The crime thriller, co-created by McDermid, focuses on the work of the fictional Scottish Institute of Forensic Science and Anatomy (SIFA) in Dundee. Its twisting plot follows three forensic professionals – Fraser, alongside Molly Windsor and Jennifer Spence – as they analyse crime scene evidence.
Traces was inspired by the work of the many remarkable women scientists that McDermid has got to know well over the years.
They include the aforementioned Professor Dame Sue Black, currently at Lancaster University, who is world-renowned for her pioneering work at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification and the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science, both created during her 15 years at Dundee University.
McDermid has also spent time picking the brains of Professor Niamh Nic Daeid, who continues to oversee the ground-breaking research happening in Dundee, alongside colleague and leading forensic anthropologist Professor Lucina Hackman.
When making Traces there was never any doubt in McDermid’s mind that a trio of female scientists should be at the fore. “Right from the start, that was one of the key elements of putting the production together,” she says. “Forensic science is so often led by women. An awful lot of leading forensic scientists are women.
“We wanted to make a drama that put women front and centre. Not just the three scientists, but the producers, the exec producers, the directors and much of the cast are female. It was one of the very first completely female-led productions when we made the first series.
“That is now almost becoming something that is not worth commenting on, but when we were making the first series of Traces, there wasn’t anything quite like it in terms of the make-up of the team.”
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The debut series of Traces, filmed between Dundee and Manchester, aired on Alibi in 2019 and was then shown on BBC One last year. McDermid worked closely with Scott & Bailey actor and writer Amelia Bullmore in developing its premise. They are both thrilled, she says, that it is back for a second run.
“It was pretty much the same as the first series,” says McDermid, describing their collaborative process. “We had some basic ideas and brainstormed them. We came up with the basic storyline we wanted to pursue and then Amelia ran with it.
“We spent time with Niamh Nic Daeid and Lucina Hackman, the two professors at Dundee. Then essentially, I stepped back, hands off, and let Amelia get on with it. As the script drafts came through, I looked at them to see if there was anything that didn’t make sense to me.”
Traces being recommissioned for a second series has given them scope to develop the characters and flesh out the storylines. “That’s what you need, otherwise it becomes a dry recitation of the forensics,” says McDermid.
“But, believe me, as we go forward through this series, the forensic detail is front and centre again. And it is surprising stuff. We have been very fortunate in that we are working with forensic scientists who are at the leading edge of research and so we are learning about things that are just coming on stream.
“I don’t want to say anything in too much detail because …” McDermid purposely trails off. Spoilers? She is keeping tight-lipped. What we do know is that the plot of the new series will centre around a clutch of improvised explosive devices being set off in and around Dundee.
Was any inspiration drawn from real-life cases? “No, absolutely not,” says McDermid. “We drew on the forensic experiences of Niamh and Lucina, but in terms of actual cases, no.
“It is difficult to say anything about this without it being a spoiler but when people see it, they may jump to the conclusion it is based on something, a real case, but the scripts were all written and in production before that happened.
"That gave us a sharp intake of breath. When life imitates art, it is eerie, but you also have to then ask questions about the material we have and whether it is exploitative in the light of subsequent events.
“We looked at it very carefully and we all agreed that it was OK, that we weren’t being exploitative, not least because we had done the work before the event as it were.”
Breaking Bad star Laura Fraser plays Professor Sarah Gordon, a forensic chemist at the fictional University of Tayside and director of SIFA.
Jennifer Spence, known for her roles in Stargate Universe and Continuum, is forensic anthropologist Professor Kathy Torrance, with Three Girls actor Molly Windsor as intrepid lab technician Emma Hedges.
How do the real-life scientists McDermid knows feel seeing their line of work depicted on screen? “They are happy with it because we have taken the time to get the detail right. That is what pleases them. That is why they got involved in the first place because we committed to doing it properly.
“They have a giggle when they see who is playing them on screen – they find that quite amusing because they are not very like them in real life.”
The million-pound question, which McDermid has no doubt been asked countless times throughout her career, is why we as readers and TV viewers have such a fascination with crime and forensics. Is it the puzzle, the macabre, the fear, the titillation – or something else?
“A lot of it is curiosity. We want to know how things work,” she says. “The great thing with forensic science, particularly as it has developed in recent years, is we get answers, and you can see how we got to the answer. I think people find that really satisfying.
“Often life events and the world around us doesn’t produce a logical conclusion and answer. The great thing about forensics and crime fiction in general is you get a resolution.
"Or, if you don’t get a resolution or an answer, at least you know where you are. When terrible things are happening all around us, it is good to have something that produces the comfort of resolution.”
That is something which feels particularly pertinent in the present day. “We have had two years of living in limbo, most of us, not knowing from one month to the next how our lives were going to be,” says McDermid.
“It is a comforting space to be in when you are watching a drama, or indeed a true-life series about forensics, to know there are answers out there. We have also in the last couple of years come to understand the importance of the role of scientists developing new ideas and finding solutions.
"It is hard to think back two years when we didn’t have a vaccine – we didn’t even have a test when Covid arrived. But the scientists put their heads down, dug in and came up with the answers. I think that is something we have all become much more aware of and gratified by.
“Before all this happened, Michael Gove was going about saying, ‘we have had enough of experts.’ Sorry Michael, you were wrong on that one.”
A 2010 study at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that women tend to be drawn towards true crime stories more than men, and that they are typically most interested in those that give insight into the killer’s motives, how victims escaped or that feature female victims.
Is that something McDermid, who penned the non-fiction guide Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime in 2014, has found from speaking to her readers? “Yes and I think maybe part of it is we are all wanting to be on the alert for the killers in our lives,” she says.
“The acts of violence that are committed against women on a daily basis in this country are still staggering and they are usually committed by people who are very close to us. Maybe part of it is we want to be on the alert.”
It is a subject that is always forefront of her mind but arguably even more so over the last fortnight. When we speak the furore over Raith Rovers signing David Goodwillie is sending shockwaves across Scotland.
A lifelong fan of the Fife club, McDermid first stepped up to be the team’s shirt sponsor in 2014. Her late father Jim, a former scout for Raith Rovers, introduced his daughter to football at an early age.
After news of Goodwillie’s signing broke, the author announced she was withdrawing her support and sponsorship of the team. The striker, who previously played for Clyde, was ruled to be a rapist and ordered to pay damages in a civil case in 2017.
Writing on Twitter, McDermid said: “The thought of the rapist David Goodwillie running out on the pitch at Starks Park in a @RaithRovers shirt with my name on it makes me feel physically sick.”
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Raith Rovers has since admitted it was a mistake to sign Goodwillie and confirmed that he will not be playing in any matches. The club has said it is reviewing his contract.
McDermid has stood firm and said she will not return while the player remains on the payroll and those who authorised his signing are still in charge.
Testament to how deep her anger and hurt runs, she tells me: “It has been the first time in 34 years that I have been glad my dad is not here.”
Before becoming an author, McDermid spent 16 years working as a journalist in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. During that time, she covered big stories including Hillsborough, Lockerbie, the “Yorkshire Ripper” case and the aftermath of the Moors Murders.
Her latest novel, 1979, returns to that world as told through the eyes of protagonist Allie Burns, an ambitious young reporter on the fictional Glasgow newspaper the Daily Clarion. It marked McDermid’s first new series in almost two decades.
The book, newly released in paperback, has become her best-selling hardback to date since it was published last August. McDermid is currently working on the next instalment, set a decade later, titled 1989.
The adventures of Allie Burns would make a fantastic TV series, I reckon. “Watch this space,” she says, cryptically.
Fans of her writing will know 1979 isn’t McDermid’s first book with a journalist at its heart. The six-strong Lindsay Gordon mystery series helped launch her career with debut novel Report for Murder in 1987.
There are some interesting rumblings on that one too. “Lindsay Gordon is in development at the moment,” she reveals.
READ MORE: A murky fog of smoke, typewriters and foul deeds: Val McDermid's latest novel 1979
Early discussions about a potential TV series have given her amusing pause for thought. “The funny thing about Lindsay Gordon is when we first started talking about it, the production company said very seriously, ‘And, of course, it is period drama …’” laughs McDermid, tickled by the notion of the 1980s as ye olde days.
Meanwhile, the much-awaited ITV adaptation of her 2003 novel, The Distant Echo, is due to grace our screens later this year. The three-part drama, Karen Pirie, will see Outlander and Vigil star Lauren Lyle play a young police detective investigating a cold case murder in St Andrews.
“We have had to make some changes to the storyline because Karen has a very small role in the book originally,” explains McDermid. “But, also, we are concertinaing almost 20 years of books into a much tighter time frame because the idea is, if this goes well, we will make book after book.
“So, the timeline has been shifted and the story has been adjusted but essentially the heart of it remains the same. I think what we have ended up with is really good television. Lauren does a fantastic job as Karen Pirie.
“Quite a lot of people will look at Lauren in the abstract and think, ‘She doesn’t look like the Karen Pirie in my head …’ but when they see her on screen, they will believe her, trust me.”
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McDermid has had cameo roles in Traces and an earlier ITV adaptation Wire In The Blood. Will we see her popping up in Karen Pirie? “No, I don’t think so. To be honest, I am getting typecast,” she deadpans. “I keep turning up as a journalist. I just don’t get the chance to show my range …”
She may be spinning multiple plates between her books and TV projects, but McDermid never passes up an opportunity to build on her forensics expertise.
“I am looking forward to spending a day with Niamh [Nic Daeid] soon because she has a new set up in Dundee which is essentially a constructed crime scene with model ‘bodies’ – they look real,” she says. “I am hoping to spend a day up there with her going through the crime scene bit by bit.”
Has McDermid had the chance to do anything like that before? “Crime scenes are not places they let people like me wander about and there are not many opportunities to see something like that which has been so meticulously reconstructed.
“What I have seen over the years is something by Frances Glessner Lee, an American heiress, who set up the first forensic lab in the US at Harvard [in the 1930s]. She did these things that were called ‘nutshell studies’ of crime.
“They were basically small-scale dioramas of crime scenes that were used for training detectives. They are like wee doll’s houses of murder.”
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Perhaps in another life McDermid might have embarked upon a career in forensics? “I don’t know,” she muses. “I enjoyed chemistry very much when I was at school. But I’m not sure I have the right temperament for a scientist.
“You do need to have enormous patience. And be willing to repeat things endlessly to make sure they are replicable. I am not sure I have the right kind of brain for it. I think if I hadn’t been a writer, I would have wanted to be a musician.”
Traces returns to Alibi on Tuesday at 9pm. 1979 by Val McDermid is out now in paperback (Sphere, £8.99)