Report for Murder by Val McDermid

US Cover

Val McDermid’s Trick of the Dark was one of the last books I purchased in 2011. I haven’t read it yet, but found myself wondering what Val’s earlier books were like. Is she one of those mystery writers that started with a bang and went down hill or has her writing grown richer and deeper? Based on her stellar reputation I’d say it’s the later, but then look at Patricia Cornwell–she’s still one of best-selling crime writers in the world, but lots of readers out there have given up on her Kay Scarpetta series.

I decided to see for myself and get my hands on McDermid’s fist novel, Report for Murder, published in 1987 by The Women’s Press in the UK. Thanks to my local library and an inter-library loan system that now covers practically all of Illinois, I got it. I read a US edition published in 1998 by Spinster Ink.

For a mystery that’s 25 years old, I thought Report for Murder held up very well. I’m not a regular reader of traditional who-dun-its (I’m the sort that prefers to be hit over the head with a suspense thriller), but Report For Murder kept my interest. It’s the first book in what became the Lindsay Gordon series. Lindsay is a “self-proclaimed cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist.” What’s not to love?

Lindsay is a freelance journalist in need of money and takes a job covering a weekend fundraiser for her old friend’s all-girls school that’s trying to save its playing fields from development. The friend, Paddy, had a rather affluent upbringing, and teaches at the school. Lindsay is not thrilled about having to spend the weekend at an affluent school for girls, but things start to look a bit brighter when Paddy’s friend and fellow alum, Cordelia, a novelist, arrives. There’s an immediate attraction between Lindsay and Cordelia. From the get-go Lindsay finds that tensions are running high at the school.

UK original cover

As the alumna begin their decent Lindsay finds that all are not that chummy. Lorna Smith-Couper, now a renowned cellist, is, to put it bluntly, a bitch. She’s found murdered minutes before she is to perform a benefit concert. Head mistress Pamela Overton assigns Lindsay the task of being the school’s press rep while the police investigate. Paddy is arrested and those at the school think the police are just trying to make a quick wrap-up of the case. The head mistress then asks Cordelia if she and Lindsay will investigate: “With Miss Gordon’s talent for investigative journalism and your novelist’s understanding of human psychology, you might be able to ensure there is no miscarriage of justice” (88).

Class issues add extra challenges to the investigation. There’s only one extended class/economic discussion and that comes early in the book, to introduce the reader to Lindsay’s way of thinking. Paddy is lamenting how the school, Derbyshire House, could lose its playing grounds (sports fields) if the money isn’t raised. Lindsay counters her friend’s concern by saying, “It seems somewhat unreal to be worrying about playing fields when a lot of state schools can’t even afford enough books to go round.” Paddy ramps up the stakes by talking about the school possibly closing and says that if that happens people will loose job and the girls from broken homes will loose the only stable thing in their lives.

Lindsay then rips into her, saying–

What about all the kids in exactly the same boat who don’t have the benefit of Mummies and Daddies with enough cash to use Derbyshire House as a social services department? Maybe their lives would be a little bit better if the middle classes had to opt back into real life and use their influence to improve things. I can’t be anything but totally opposed to this system you cheerfully shore up. And don’t give me those spurious arguments about equal opportunities. In the context of this society, what you’re talking about isn’t an extension of equality; it’s an extension of inequality. Don’t try to quiet my conscience like that” (10).

As a socialist, Lindsay is hyper-aware of money and class issues. Other instances of her beliefs coming to the fore are not as lengthy, so if you don’t like much of that in your novel reading there are no worries. Her beliefs and political leanings help her see suspects a bit more clearly, or perhaps just differently, than others and they also cause her to have some suspicions, specifically of Cordelia. Money issues cause at least one blow up between the new lovers.

Homophobia is another issue that adds challenges to the investigation. One teacher they question was Lorna Smith-Couper’s lover in the past, but as someone who came of age probably in the 50s and 60s, the woman is deeply in the closest. She says,

I had never acted on my desires in any way before Lorna–it was a different world when I was young. It wouldn’t have been possible to have fulfilled my dreams and still have done the things I wanted to in my career. It would have set me too far apart, and I’d never have got a teaching job. I was never attracted to the idea of living a secret life, I never had that kind of nerve (118).

Unfortunately, twenty-five years later, this conflict is still reality for many gays and lesbians, to varying degrees and depending upon their profession.

Money and passion are often the cause of murder and Lindsay has a good nose for sniffing out both.

Here’s the Lindsay Gordon series in chronological order:

  • Report for Murder (1987)
  • Common Murder (1989)
  • Final Edition (1991) US Titles: Open and Shut, Deadline for Murder
  • Union Jack (1993), US Title: Conferences are Murder
  • Booked for Murder (1996)
  • Hostage to Murder (2003)

Having zero experience with private girls schools, it was fun to get a little peek into that world and into Gordon’s life as a freelance reporter. I’ll definitely put book #2 on my TBR list. One last comment is that I was struck by the amount of alcohol consumed throughout the weekend. Did people did drink more in the 80s or does it just seem that way? Granted, those were my wild days back then.

And back to my opening question: Val McDermid was obviously good from the get-go and hasn’t lost a thing. From reading some of her more recent novels, I’d say she’s grown into a deeper and more nuanced writer.

Author: Val McDermid
Publisher: The Woman’s Press, 1987
Recommend to: people who like traditional mysteries (rather than thrillers), LGBT characters, social/economic issues.
Source: library copy

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