1989 by Val McDermid

Reviewed by Rod McLary

1989 is the second book in Val McDermid’s new series of crime thrillers – the first was 1979 – which centres on Allie Burns.  However, ten years after the first in the series, the world has moved on and taken Allie with it.  She is no longer an investigative journalist with the Glasgow Clarion as she was in 1979.  The Clarion has been taken over by Wallace ‘Ace’ Lockhart – a media mogul along the lines of Rupert Murdoch – who looms large in this novel.  Allie is now the northern news editor for the Sunday Globe.

The novel opens with the memorial service for the victims of the Lockerbie bombing when a Pan Am flight to London carrying 243 passengers and 16 crew was destroyed by a bomb planted on board.  The bombing is just one of the major tragic events which anchor the book in 1989 – the others include the fatal people crush at Hillsborough Stadium when ninety-four football fans died and over 700 were injured; and the Kegworth air disaster when a passenger plane crashed on the M1 motorway and forty-seven people died.  These tragedies force Allie to question her capacity for absorbing and reporting the anguish and grief of those whose family and friends suffered.

The ’unmistakable bulk’ of ‘Ace’ Lockhart with his ‘wide body of a heavyweight boxer gone to seed’ dominates the narrative from his first appearance.  The author is clearly making a point with this character as she [and Allie] mourns the loss of investigative reporting described by Ace as ‘a waste of money’.  But it is not long before Ace is in desperate need of Allie’s investigative skills when his daughter Genevieve is held captive behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin.  In 1989, the Berlin Wall was well and truly in place although the beginning of its ‘fall’ was only months away.  The kidnapping, and its lead-up, of Genevieve provide a major source of tension in the novel and its consequences signal her eventual come-uppance as the spoiled daughter of a media mogul.

An interesting literary device is employed in the Prologue.  An unidentified male sails to a private island and plants in effect a time-bomb – he didn’t know when the cyanide would catch up with its intended victim.  But it was only a matter of time [5].  The reader can easily overlook the significance of this seemingly random event and it is not until almost the end of the novel that this device comes into play with deadly consequences for one of the major protagonists.

The reasons for this plant emerge later in the novel and they relate to the murder by German soldiers of the Jewish inhabitants in a Polish village sometime in 1944.  The deaths of the Jews are hastened by the betrayal of their whereabouts by a fellow Jew in exchange for his life.  The potential exposure of this person’s cold-blooded disloyalty pulses beneath the surface through the narrative.

Along the way, there are cultural references to the 1980s – the music, the beginning of the ubiquity of mobile phones [then the size of house bricks], dial-up modems, and more seriously the homophobic response to the emergence of HIV/AIDS.  These are seamlessly woven into the narrative and the reader – if old enough – can indulge in a little nostalgia about a time when social media did not dominate.

Readers of 1979 would know that Allie is gay; and in 1989 she is in a serious relationship with Rona Dunsyre who is also a journalist but more of the Sunday feature kind.  Their commitment to each other and the obvious enjoyment of their relationship provide an effective and welcome counter-point to the tense and sometimes fraught events occurring elsewhere.

As always, Val McDermid has crafted a thrilling and exciting story with an engaging protagonist at the heart of it.  Allie Burns, while no police officer like DCI Carol Jordan, is nevertheless a resourceful and formidable journalist whose investigative skills are almost as good.

This promises to be a series where the readers will be on tenterhooks waiting for the next book.

Val McDermid has sold over 17 million books and has been translated into more than 40 languages.  She has won many accolades including the CWA Gold Dagger and the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger.  Val has also been a judge for the Booker Prize and is the Visiting Professor in the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand.



by Val McDermid


ISBN 978 075158 311 3

$32.99; 416pp


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