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Sunday, 17 March 2019

Report for Murder by Val McDermid

Report for Murder (1987) introduces the self-described ‘cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist’ Lindsay Gordon. This description occurs in the first paragraph, making her impossible to dislike. Val McDermid’s debut novel, published under the Paretsky-evoking name V.I. McDermid, is much more in the Agatha Christie tradition than the police procedural model that made its author famous. However, in some ways – not least the detective – it’s more sociologically interesting. The themes are much simpler and more traditional than in McDermid’s Hill and Jordan books: we’re looking here at the class system, lies, and relationships.

As a journalist, Lindsay is commissioned to write a puff piece on a charity fundraiser at an exclusive boarding school for girls. She turns up and walks into various rows between the staff, while trying to reconcile her socialist views with her interest in various posh women. The set-up certainly reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons (I see the influence of this book much more than the influence of Nancy Spain’s Poison for Teacher), and the plot is more of a light, straightforward mystery than one might expect from this author.

I understand why McDermid moved away from writing conventional mysteries whose USP is the detective’s sexuality and into more contemporary, commercial – and, notably, straight – blockbuster novels. But I hope that subsequent entries to the Lindsay Gordon canon, which ran up to 2003, don’t lose the lightness of touch that makes Report for Murder a strong, diverting read.


META MATTERS

Lindsay Gordon is an avid reader of detective fiction. We meet her reading a detective novel on a train. As soon as a body is discovered, Lindsay is encouraged to investigate when one character asks, ‘Don’t you ever read any Agatha Christie?’ and another christens the event ‘Murder in the Music Room’.  Later, investigating, and consistently using language like ‘red herring’, Lindsay regrets that ‘It always seems so easy for the Hercule Poirots and the Lord Peter Wimseys’. There are many other meta moments like this.

My favourite such moment occurs roughly midway through, when Lindsay's love interest says that, if Lindsay were Hercule Poirot, she would have solved it by now. The response? 'If I were Hercule Poirot, you wouldn't fancy me.'

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