She’s on the side of the angels: Val McDermid on Lund & The Killing

A couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to have a very interesting conversation with Val McDermid about Sarah Lund and The Killing. I caught her before she gave a reading from her new book, Vanishing Point, at Bristol Central Library for a piece I was writing for Diva Magazine. Word count restrictions meant that, sadly, I was only able to use a few quotes from our conversation but I think what Val said was fascinating and it deserves reading in full. So here it is. The interview was conducted, of course, when we were innocents, long before we knew anything about what would happen to Lund in the third and final series.

You’re a well-known fan of The Killing – why do you love Lund?
I love her tenacity and her doggedness and her refusal to be palmed off, and her refusal to be seduced by the surface glamour of things. The whole political side of it is very glamorous and very exciting, and here there and yon and she’s like completely like “so?” I think the refusal to take anything at face value is the admirable thing about her as a character.

I found it quite interesting in the second series, there was a moment when she was taken to the crime scene and it just struck me that the way she was reading the crime scene is not the way your average cop reads a crime scene. To me, it had lots of echoes of the way Tony Hill reads a crime scene: you’re coming at it entirely from the position of inside the killer’s head. Why these things are the shape they are, why are things disarrayed in this particular way, what’s happened here…  it’s that sort of difference, that being apart, that separateness I suppose that probably also speaks to the lesbian experience, if you like.

I think one of the reasons why the whole lesbian crime fiction started in the first place was the sense of the lesbian as an outsider, very much in the American tradition of the maverick who walks alone. For a lot of lesbians, that’s part of their early experience, being the outsider, so it’s a genre which suits us particularly well. I’m not alone, probably, in seeing aspects of my own experience in Sarah Lund. I think we’ve all got a Sarah Lund in our past, we’ve all got a fucked-up, emotionally unavailable woman who we’ve fallen in love with, who has then just gone through out lives like a forest fire leaving scorched earth behind it.  You’d just have to feel so. This is a woman whose focus is elsewhere.

Lund seems to have a very particular effect on, well, all women really but lesbians in particular. Why do you think that is?
I think partly it’s the jumpers. It’s very lesbian-wear, you know, in the winter, your big thick jumper, because you’re going to go out and chop logs – or at least look like you’re chopping logs.

When you interviewed Sofie Gråbøl for the Culture Show, you said that Lund is an aspirational character. Why do you think that?
I think we’d all like to have that ability to see something through to the end and not be diverted by all the flimflam in the way. I think that notion of determining that you’re going to go for something and you go straight for it, I think that’s something more of us need to do I think: have a very clear idea of what we want to go for and just go for it.

And to just hang the phone up and walk off…
Yeah. We need to do a lot more of that kind of thing. Something happened the other day and I said to my wife, I’m just far too polite! It’s not a word people normally associate with me but in this particular instance I was polite to someone and, really, there were several things I could have – should have – said and I just didn’t. I thought, if I can’t do it, then what chance has the rest of the world got? Because I can be Bolshie at times. Sarah Lund wouldn’t have stood for it. She’d just have been ‘you’re full of shit’.

This phenomenon of the girlcrush (for example, the producer who announced she had one on her, at the BAFTAs). What do you make of that? Lund seems to affect straight women in a way I haven’t ever seen with other characters on television.
Given that sexuality is a continuum, the notion that all these straight women are going to find somebody attractive somewhere down the line. They’re going to have a girlcrush and I suspect that someone who’s clearly a no-shit figure, who has that determination and who blows every body else off that gets between her and her goal is quite an attractive figure if you’re going to have a girlcrush to go for.

Possibly another reason she’s so attractive is that there’s a real air of ambiguity around her, including in terms of gender. She’s very androgynous. She occupies the middle ground.
I think some of the ownership she takes of the situation without a second thought, without a backward glance, most people would perceive as a male characteristic, particularly in the workplace. We do tend to defer and that’s a word that doesn’t quite work in the same sentence as Sarah Lund. So I think all of those are the things we wish we could do in the fleeting moment, but we never quite manage it. Like the things we think of three days later which we should have said and even if we’d thought of them at the time, we probably wouldn’t have had the balls to say them. And it’s quite interesting when people do actually do that in the workplace and do the equivalent of putting the phone down, people talk about it for years. It’s extraordinary. We don’t do this often enough; it’s not about being aggressive. It’s about responding in a way a guy would respond without actually thinking about it and the world won’t end if we do it. She takes agency. She takes it upon herself to do it, but she doesn’t do it in a way that makes you think: ‘look! I’m making a statement.’ It’s completely ‘this is how I am, take it or leave it’. She doesn’t court favour from anyone, not even her own kid. We’re all in thrall to her children, she’s not!

Do you think she’s a Good Cop or Bad Cop?
I don’t think she’s corrupt.

What about in terms of moral ambiguity? I see Lund as something of a Thomas Ripley character, less concerned with right and wrong, more concerned with her being in the right.
I think there is an absolute conviction of right and wrong. I think she’s on the side of the angels, whereas Ripley’s entirely on the side of himself. I don’t think Sarah Lund does things because they’re in her self-interest – I think she does things because she’s absolutely certain they are the right thing. I suppose in that sense, the trouble would come if she thinks the right thing is in direct conflict with what her colleagues or her organisation needs her to do. She’d have been a very inconvenient cop if she’d been in South Yorkshire police during the time of Hillsborough, because she’d have just gone round saying ‘that’s not how it was’. So she’s not corruptible in that way, she’s not interested in her own best interests because, if she was interested in her own best interests, she wouldn’t be policing a ferry crossing somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I think she really doesn’t care about herself.

So you think she could never go over to the dark side?
No, because it wouldn’t interest her. What would be the point? There would be no point in it for her. I think people have said she has elements of the autistic personality and I think that is one of the areas where it does come through. Absolutely I think she has a moral compass and that steers her.

You know a lot about iconic female detectives, having created a fair few yourself. Where do you think Lund stands in the canon?
She’s up there in the pantheon. She’s definitely well on the way to being a classic of the genre. She’s a sort of Helen Mirren de nos jours, but in a very different way, I think Helen Mirren’s [character Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect] another one that provokes girlcrushes, in the same kind of way. She takes power, she takes what she needs to do the job she needs to do. It’s understandable that Linda La Plante steers her down the path of having a drink problem and this lonely old age: there’s an authenticity in that, but I was disappointed at the same time. I wanted her to go, invincible, into the far distance…

Do you think that Lund will ever be happy?
I think she can be quite content when she works things out and everything’s sorted, but I don’t think she weighs her life in those sorts of terms. I think she weighs her life in terms of ‘did I do the right thing?’ I think she feels terrible guilt over Meyer and I think she carries that with her. Those burdens make it hard to have an uncomplicated happiness. It’s hard to imagine her having a relationship. It’s hard to imagine her in love because of all the things that means about granting control to someone else and letting yourself go.

What did you get from the programme, watching it from the perspective of crime novelist?

What I liked best about both was giving a story space. We’ve become very stripped down and episodic about the way we tell stories now. It’s very hard to get a season that lasts more than six weeks and it’s very hard to get a season where it isn’t a different core storyline every week. You can’t get under the skin if you do it like that. It becomes superficial, a series of tropes and it stops being a powerful drama. I really hope that British television companies are going to understand that, particularly with adaptations. If you have a 400-page novel, you can’t do it in 90 minutes. You end up with bad TV drama and it doesn’t work for anybody because nobody buys the books afterwards. I think we need to learn to take a deep breath and understand that our viewers are very sophisticated. My readers are very sophisticated. They have no problem in grasping a storyline that has four subplots going on. Certainly, viewers can do that too: when you see something like The Killing, it’s labyrinthine and we stay with it.

Do you think it help that it was subtitled, in that you have to concentrate and you have to focus on the screen?
I couldn’t watch it when it first went out because my wife likes to stitch in front of the television, so subtitles is a no-no. So I had these secret sessions of The Killing or Inspector Montalbano when she’s out of the country or late at night after she’s gone to bed. So I watched the first one over the space of about a week and a half. It was completely that ‘I’ll just watch one more episode…’ It’s not even like the American stuff where it’s only 40 minutes, this was an hour long and you had to concentrate.

I came to The Killing late. I’d heard about it, thought ‘well, I’d better watch because everybody says it’s great, but I don’t get the thing where everyone is obsessed with that woman…’ then after about one and a half episodes, BAM! I want to marry her!
It’s the intelligence. Clare Balding says the secret of happiness is concentration – so I’m all for that. Then I also love her complete lack of self-consciousness, the character. She’s completely not thinking about how she looks or how she appears to other people. She couldn’t give a shit.

How do you think it will Series 3 will end? How would you like it to end?

Hopefully not dead. That would be very unsatisfying. I can see the dramatic power of that, that she makes that final sacrifice, to go out as the ultimate right – whatever that might be. I don’t know. It’s hard to think of it ending in a way that fulfils the needs of the drama and the audience. I can’t imagine a way that will satisfy both. If I was writing it, I probably would have to kill her – and then leave the country.

Perhaps she could bad, go to a women’s prison and then we could have a new spin-off series…
It’s possible she may go to women’s prison. Not because she goes to the dark side, but because she’s so inflexible about the good side. I can see her ending up there, that’s a possibility… just because we want more series, isn’t it? I think one of the difficulties for Sofie is that for us, she didn’t exist before The Killing and in fact she’s had a very successful, long career in Denmark. I think it’s easy for us to think ‘well, she can just go and do The Killing’ but she has other things she wants to do. But you never know, if the writer comes up with a good idea, it’s always tempting for the actor to come back and reprise it…

I think it would be very wrong if there was a happy ending, with Lund in love…
Finding love and happiness would be terrible for her! It wouldn’t be believable. It would undermine everything we know about her.



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4 Responses to “She’s on the side of the angels: Val McDermid on Lund & The Killing”

  1. philsrogers Says:

    Reblogged this on phil rogers and commented:
    Having just watched the last episode of The Killing last night I found this very interesting..

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