Val McDermid – 1979
Published by Little, Brown, hardback £20 (also available in ebook and audiobook). I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher as I chaired an event at the Portobello Book Festival featuring the author. Many thanks to Joanne Baird at PBF and Laura Sherlock for facilitating this.
First, the official blurb: 1979. It is the winter of discontent, and reporter Allie Burns is chasing her first big scoop. There are few women in the newsroom and she needs something explosive for the boys’ club to take her seriously. Soon Allie and fellow journalist Danny Sullivan are exposing the criminal underbelly of respectable Scotland. They risk making powerful enemies – and Allie won’t stop there. When she discovers a home-grown terrorist threat, Allie comes up with a plan to infiltrate the group and make her name. But she’s a woman in a man’s world . . . and putting a foot wrong could be fatal.
Thirty-five novels, short stories, non-fiction, plays, TV and radio dramas, a graphic novel and a children’s book: Val McDermid is about as far from a one-trick pony as a writer can get. And within that fiction output, there are a string of excellent standalones – and she has become a serial creator of series: Lindsay Gordon, Kate Brannigan, Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, Karen Pirie and now Allie Burns. All very different central characters, different types of case and different ways of investigating. This mercurial approach is one of the reasons why McDermid is my favourite crime writer – where will she go next? It’s always worth following to find out.
But 1979 is not just the start of a new series, this is new territory in that it is firmly a historical novel, set in Glasgow 1979 – winter of discontent, IRA bombings and a test for the debate on Scottish devolution looming all present and correct. It’s ambitious too, formulated as a response to not wanting to try and write about the current unsteady world of Covid. The solution? Go back in time and revisit a character once a decade from 1979 to 2019. And it mines McDermid’s life more transparently than any of her previous works. She was at pains, when interviewed by Abir Mukherjee at Bloody Scotland, to say the similarities are superficial – but also that one incident in particular was inspired by a story she’d written as a young reporter in Glasgow (and a hilarious moment it is too).
Our introduction to Alison “Allie” Burns lays down one of the basic rules of journalism, and sets the temperature: “For her tribe, someone else’s bad news was the unmistakable sound of opportunity knocking.” A brief background underlines Allie’s disconnect from family and friends she grew up with, thanks to her time at university and her career choice, but also that she made friends while studying and during her journalism training: she found her tribe. She is hoping the Daily Clarion in Glasgow will provide connections as well as contacts, starting with colleague Danny, the only news reporter to treat her like a person rather than a silly wee girl, and Rona, a features writer who takes Allie under her wing.
The casual and not-so-casual sexism, racism, homophobia and sectarianism of the period and of journalism of the period are not shied away from, but the newsroom characters also raise plenty of smiles. Fictional flair is added, but the smoky newsroom, the alcohol intake, the camaraderie and back-stabbing, the characters who would be up in front of HR within an hour of starting a job in a modern office – it’s all recognisably true, and acts as a dark-humoured form of light relief as well as being a love letter to the industry.
Danny is secretly working on a potentially huge story, which all started with a comment from his brother, who works in insurance with wealthy clients. Some assistance from the paper’s financial correspondent, and Allie’s writing flair, turn it into an explosive package for their boss, news editor Angus. Then it’s Allie’s turn to light the blue touchpaper: fed up with “the wumman stories” she is handed and keen to bring something tougher to the table, she has begun researching the SNP ahead of the devolution referendum and stumbles on something which could change the face of the independence movement for good. With Danny’s help, she gets her own front page from Angus, but their planned celebration is abruptly cancelled as the novel – which has been quietly ratcheting up the tension until now, dealing with shady characters not afraid to threaten when cornered albeit with little violence on show – takes a jump into something altogether nastier.
As Allie puts her investigative skills to use, a lot of readers may be surprised, maybe even appalled at one conversation around this point of the novel. But no-one who works in news will be – I wept reading those pages; it’s such a powerful scene and so very honest and real about how journalism operates, it tapped into something in me I thought well-buried.
And then just as we expect a revelation from Allie’s nosing around, suddenly there are no more pages. While Allie is left in an interesting and promising position, whodunnit?? Ah, well, you have to read the Daily Clarion’s exclusive story by Alison Burns, in a clever epilogue made up of newspaper stories, to find out.
It’s a gutsy move to mess with the classic structure of a whodunnit to this degree, and I wonder if some readers may feel slightly cheated that there’s no big scene where all is explained and our heroine is lauded for her efforts. Then again, that’s journalism: you write the story, if you’re lucky the news editor might say “aye, no’ bad”, then it’s chip wrappings and you’re starting again.
This ending also underlines that this series-opening novel is something new: something that has a great plot but is firmly character-driven, and something that will take both a deeper and a wider look at the world than most crime novels. It pushes the envelope of what crime fiction is and can do, thematically and structurally. It’s superb from beginning to end. McDermid has a rich and varied body of work, but there is no resting on laurels here. Anyone thinking she is ready to hang up her crown and abdicate from her position as Queen of Crime is sorely mistaken.
Val McDermid is a number one bestseller whose novels have been translated into 40 languages, and have sold more than 17 million copies. She has won many awards, including the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2010 for a career marked by sustained excellence, and in 2016, the Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. She is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the recipient of six honorary doctorates, an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford and a professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand. She is also the frontwoman of the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers and has appeared on TV and radio shows from Question Time to Have I Got News For You. She divides her time between Edinburgh and East Neuk of Fife, where she is the shirt sponsor of her beloved Raith Rovers.