Review: 1989

Val McDermid – 1989

Published by Little, Brown (Sphere), paperback £8.99. Also available in ebook and audio book. I was given a copy of the hardback edition by the publisher. Thanks to Laura Sherlock for facilitating.

First, the official blurb: 1989. The world is on the brink of revolution and journalist Allie Burns is a woman on a mission. When she discovers a lead about the exploitation of society’s most vulnerable, Allie is determined to investigate and give voice to the silenced. Elsewhere, a ticking clock begins the countdown to a murder. As Allie begins to connect the dots and edges closer to exposing the truth, it is more shocking than she ever imagined. There’s nothing like a killer story, and to tell it, Allie must risk her freedom and her life…

1979 brought the hugely relatable central character of Allie Burns, and an evocation of the 1970s so vivid I could all but smell the newsroom cigarette smoke – plus it had a structure that pushed the crime fiction envelope so hard Royal Mail would slap on a warning label. (You can read my full thoughts elsewhere.)

The moment I got my hands on 1989, I flipped straight to the playlist in the back pages – I was 15 in 1989 and a music obsessive; I could sing you pretty much every word of the tracks listed here. With that ringing in my ears, I dived in to the prologue, and by the end of its few pages felt the familiar hunger to devour the story ahead.

In the somewhat subdued first chapter we get a fast introduction to Allie’s current role, her job over the intervening years, her new boss – and the peculiar path journalism walks between delving into a story and being necessarily apart from it. There are lighter moments, of course, especially in the scenes with Allie and Rona’s friends, but this isn’t the novel to read if you want gleeful fun – early on, Allie takes on a side-project investigating the influx of patients from Edinburgh to an HIV clinic in Manchester, where she now lives, bringing tough questions and painful answers. 

Back at the day job, the portrayal of Allie’s new boss, newspaper proprietor Wallace “Ace” Lockhart, leans heavily on the legal rule that you can’t libel the dead – it’s so thinly veiled it would make Salome blush. He’s always monstrously entertaining to the reader; to his employees he can be both charming and terrifying, sometimes simulataneousely. And let’s not forget the peculiar post that he is receiving…

There are huge geopolitical rumblings in eastern Europe that Lockhart wants to get ahead of, and Allie finds herself involved thanks to a trip to Berlin to meet a contact about her HIV investigation. This visit reads like something from a Cold War spy novel, with the added twist of Allie having a rather awkward first meeting with Lockhart’s daughter, Genevieve, who is in the city for her own purposes.

Back in the UK, the relief of being out of Berlin is forgotten in a heartbeat as Allie gets an urgent message from a football reporter about an incident in Sheffield. Hillsborough. Rather than taking a 20:20 hindsight overview, McDermid gives us a flavour of the unsettling, fractured sensations of reporting an unfolding situation. It’s an incredibly powerful and moving section, as well as a sharp reminder that she was a journalist for many years – my feeling is that the only absolute fiction in these scenes is the names of the reporters. 

Still processing this, Allie is sent back to Berlin on a mission for Ace – and then things go very wrong indeed. Suddenly we’re harking back to the prologue and starting to see the aftermath spool out across the miles and years, as in investigating and unravelling Ace’s past, Allie finds answers to questions in the present. And, finally, there’s an ending that promises a new beginning. 

The relationship between Allie and Rona, which was budding at the end of 1979, blooms beautifully here – it was a real treat to see them navigate their world together; a partnership of equals that nourishes both of them. Will they be together in another decade? I do hope so.

More pertinent to ask is whether Allie will stand her ground, as she realises that repeated immersion in tough stories is taking its toll. The industry has belatedly realised that denial and drink aren’t good coping mechanisms, but in 1979 and 1989 “mental health” was an unknown phrase. I have hopes, but crime writers rarely make life easy for their protagonists…

As in 1979, the murder and sleuthing elements are not the be-all and end-all – once again McDermid has dialled her always-excellent character work up to 11, as well as skilfully blending in real events. That unconventional structure is back, but this time I was waiting for it, and think it’s a nifty and delightfully sneaky way to say a lot of things that wouldn’t fit in a single denouement.

Two books in a row McDermid has made me cry with her superb writing, so I’ll be stocking up on tissues before I read 1999 – but nothing will stop me opening the covers to get engrossed once more in Allie Burns’ world. I do declare: There’s Only One Val McDermid, Quine of Crime!

Val McDermid is a number one bestseller whose novels have been translated into more than 40 languages, and have sold over 19 million copies. She has won many awards, including the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year and the LA Times Book of the Year Award. She was inducted into the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame in 2009, was the recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2010 and received the Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award in 2011. In 2016, Val received the Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and in 2017 received the DIVA Literary Prize for Crime, and was elected a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Val has served as a judge for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize, and was chair of the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017. She is the recipient of six honorary doctorates and is an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She writes full-time and divides her time between Edinburgh and East Neuk of Fife.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @valmcdermid
Find her website at:

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