1979 by Val McDermid

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Val McDermid is arguably one of the giants in the crime genre.  Any doubters of that claim need only to consider her many awards – most notably the CWA Gold Dagger, the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger and the Grand Prix des Romans D’Aventure.  Perhaps best known for the Wire in the Blood series featuring the forensic psychologist Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan and her more recent novels featuring DCI Karen Pirie, she has now introduced a new character and a new series.

The novel is set in 1979 – as the title suggests – and the author plans to set each of the subsequent novels in the series at pivotal moments in the following four decades.  1979 was a significant year for Scotland: it was the year of the Scottish devolution referendum which ultimately failed as the number of votes in favour of devolution did not reach 40% of the electorate.  It was also the year in which the IRA assassinated Lord Louis Mountbatten, and, on the same day, ambushed and killed 18 British soldiers.  The 1970s was the decade of the second wave of feminism, and, in 1979, Scotland was two years away from the de-criminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adult males.  Each of these historical themes resonates through the unfolding storylines in 1979.

In the foreground of 1979 is the intelligent and ambitious Alison [known as Allie] Burns – Cambridge-educated and the only woman journalist with the Glasgow Clarion.  Allie is hunting for a story which will place her on the front page of the Clarion and kickstart her career as an investigative journalist.  Val McDermid – in the 1970s – was a journalist herself and the interactions in the Clarion’s newsroom have an authenticity which would be difficult to recreate without that personal experience.

Allie and her colleague Danny Sullivan learn of a major tax evasion scheme which is orchestrated by one of the leading insurance companies in Scotland.  Drawing on inside information – without the knowledge of the accidental informant – Allie and Danny are able to expose the scheme.

At the same time, the impending referendum has provoked some Scots into considering more drastic measures to ensure that Scotland will break free of its bonds to England.  Three friends – described by Danny as ‘bampots’ [slang for foolish, unpleasant or obnoxious people] – look to the IRA for inspiration on how to make their point loudly and clearly.  This provides the second story line for Allie and Danny as Danny infiltrates the group and works his way into its machinations.

How each of these storylines develop and reach their respective dénouements is best left to the reader to discover.  There is, however, the personal backstories of both protagonists revealed alongside the unfolding of the plots to add depth and breadth to the characters and to the story.

Readers of Val McDermid would be well aware that she is a strong feminist and consequently themes of misogyny and paternalism are interwoven in the arc of the primary plot.  Allie in particular is subjected to dismissive asides such as being referred to as ‘the lassie’.  Danny is gay so the author ably weaves into his story the personal and professional risks – and potential criminal charges – for any sexually-active gay person at that time.

With the two primary stories and the backstories of Allie and Danny set within the political landscape of the devolution referendum, the second wave of feminism, closeted homosexuality and IRA terrorism, there is a great deal going on in this novel.  But the author is a master of her craft and maintains a perfect balance and a tension which does not diminish.  Perhaps the only criticism which can be made is the somewhat awkward inclusion of some cultural references to cement the story in 1979.  This though is a minor quibble about a well-paced crime thriller which has depth and interest beyond the crimes at its centre.

Allie Burns is an engaging character and, as the book progresses, she increasingly makes her mark – and in her words ‘I’m from Fife, Danny.  Gallus [meaning bold, daring, reckless] is my middle name’ [112].  It is very likely that the Allie Burns series of books will be as enjoyable and well-received as those about Tony Hill and Karen Pirie.

Well recommended.

1979

[2021]

by Val McDermid

Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 07515 8308 3

$32.99; 418pp

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