Modern crime fiction has come a long way since the country-house murders, dislikeable victims and detached detectives of the Golden Age, says acclaimed Scottish novelist Val McDermid.

"We've almost completely abandoned the notion of the crossword-puzzle novel, the whodunnit, and we're writing books that are of necessity written in the world we live in."

In many ways crime fiction, at its best, has become the modern social novel, peeling back the layers and exploring questions and issues faced by contemporary society.

"It provides a great vehicle for writing very honestly, and sometimes very opinionatedly, about the society that you live in," says McDermid, who for the past two decades has been at the forefront of a surge in Scottish crime writing.

This year she received the Cartier Diamond Dagger from the British Crime Writers' Association for "an outstanding lifetime's contribution to the genre".

Her "lifetime's contribution" has been a little different to many of her colleagues. Rather than one dominant character in her books, McDermid has penned three recurring series - one featuring lesbian journalist Lindsay Gordon, another private eye Kate Brannigan, and the third dysfunctional profiler Tony Hill and DI Carol Jordan - and several standalones.

Her 22 bestselling novels have been translated into 30 languages, sold more than 10 million copies, and spawned two award-winning television shows - Wire in the Blood (based on the Hill/Jordan books) and Place of Execution (based on a standalone). The 55-year-old certainly doesn't have a problem being honest or opinionated, either in her writing or in conversation.

When I ask about the explosion of Scottish crime writing, she isn't afraid to skewer the relative failure of literary fiction to engage with and address the social and political changes in contemporary Scottish society, meaning crime writers such as herself and Ian Rankin, and the wave that followed, had to pick up the baton.

Changes such as the debate around devolution and the establishment of a Scottish Parliament led to a kind of self-examination, says McDermid, raising questions like, "'Who are we?', 'how did we get here?', and 'how do we define ourselves in a more active sense than we're not English and we hate them'?"

There's a hint of stifled chuckle beneath the bluntness as McDermid throws out the last question, a common mix throughout the interview.

Perhaps this is because McDermid actually lives south of the border these days, and sets most of her crime thrillers in England, although they retain that trademark Scottish mix of darkness and duality, social conscience, and flawed heroes.

She addresses subjects head-on, and is down-to-earth and fun to chat to - something we can experience for ourselves during the next few days when McDermid visits our shores for a four-city tour, finishing at the Women's Bookshop in Ponsonby on Tuesday evening.

McDermid is touring in support of her latest thriller, Trick of the Dark, a gripping page-turner which centres on disgraced clinical psychologist Charlie Flint, tasked by her old Oxford don to find out whether the successful businesswoman the don's newly widowed daughter is seeing may in fact be a killer.

McDermid says the basic idea had been rattling around in her head for more than a decade, sparked by a game of "what if?" when she visited her own old Oxford college (in the early 1970s McDermid was the first person from a Scottish state school to be accepted into St Hilda's College), saw a wedding party in the grounds, and recognised the bride as someone she used to babysit.

But the structure of the novel didn't come to her until recently. "Often it takes me a long time to get from the fresh idea to the finished book," she says.

Not that she minds - she needs variety to prevent her from getting bored, so having lots of ideas germinating suits her just fine.

Trick of the Dark, she says, is essentially "about this person, who you don't know through the book whether this person is actually a psychotic serial killer, or just someone around whom unfortunate things happen".

McDermid says she's looking forward to arriving in New Zealand for her Trick of the Dark tour, as she has fond memories of previous visits.

She first came in 1999 for the Listener Women's Book Festival, which involved nine events over seven days throughout the country.

"It was fantastic. One of the main things I really like about New Zealand is that every town seems to have its own character, its own identity.

"There's a real sense of individuality, and when you get to a new town the first thing you need to do is get out and have a walk around to get a feel for what it's like."

Walking is one of McDermid's favourite activities - each day she strolls with her border terrier along the tidal beach near her home in a small village in Northumberland, 50km from the Scottish border.

"Our beach is an estuary where the river comes on to the beach, and every day the shape of the beach is different, the sea is different. There are no two days the same on that beach, and I just love the constant variety of it, I love the feel of walking by water."

Her beach time is also "writing" time; she talks aloud in different voices as she plans out scenes in her head.

Despite her worldwide success, away from her writing desk (and writing beach), McDermid most enjoys the simple pleasures of life: spending time with her family (she shares custody of her 9-year-old son with her former girlfriend), going to pub quizzes in her tiny village, and playing computer games such as World of Warcraft.

Her low-key, peaceful existence is somewhat at odds with the excitement and violence contained within the pages she writes. McDermid worked as a journalist before becoming a novelist, including covering big stories like the Moors Murders and the Yorkshire Ripper, allowing her a view into varied layers of society.

It was the "contaminating effect" of crime on victims and wider society, rather than mere whodunnit, that has always concerned her, she says.

"When a violent crime happens, it's like dropping a stone into a community - it doesn't just cause ripples, it causes fractures."

Val McDermid

- Scottish crime writer, born 1955; lives in Northumberland and Manchester. She was the first student from a Scottish state school to attend Oxford University.

- Her most famous creation is psychologist Dr Tony Hill, played by Robson Greene in the Wire in the Blood television series.

- Her first book, Report for Murder, was published in 1987; her latest, Trick of the Dark (Little, Brown, $38.99), is out now.

Auckland appearance

Val McDermid will appear at the Women's Bookshop, 105 Ponsonby Rd, Auckland on Tuesday, August 24 at 6pm; $5; RSVP (09) 376 4399 or email
books@womensbookshops.co.nz