1979 by Val McDermid

3 Mins read
1979 by Val McDermid front cover

What constitutes a historical crime novel? That’s something I mused upon while reading this book, the first in a new series from the queen of crime, Val McDermid, featuring journalist Allison ‘Allie’ Burns. Unsurprisingly, it is set in… 1979. But that’s only a handful of years ago, right?

Counting up on fingers and toes, I was shocked to realise we’ve moved on 43 years since the Winter of Discontent, Maggie Thatcher becoming PM, widespread strikes, the arrival of the UK’s first naturist beach and Scotland’s devolution referendum. Many of these events feature within the pages of the novel, some in shocking fashion, others handled with a more lighthearted mien. If you were around then, this book will rouse more than a few half-forgotten memories – if you weren’t, then prepare to be stunned by how much things have changed over the past four decades or so.

Allie is a rare female in the newsroom of The Daily Clarion, a Glasgow-based Scottish national newspaper that sits on the tabloid side of the fence. It’s her first national job since finishing her degree and then doing her training at a regional in the north east of England. She has ambitions of making it to Fleet Street, but in a male dominated world she’s consigned to the stories that need ‘a woman’s touch’ – like the first-hand account she writes about the unexpected arrival of a baby on a snow-bound train at the turn of New Year.

Really it was Danny Sullivan’s story – after all, the more experienced Clarion hack was the one who actually acted as a makeshift midwife in the heat of the moment as the pair travelled back to Glasgow after spending time with their respective families. But Danny wants to be an investigative reporter and it would do his street cred no good if the truth came out, so Allie takes over the reporting as a favour to him.

He’s destined to return the favour in spades, and soon the pair are working on a cracking tale that is sure to make the front page splash. It involves prominent local businessmen, money laundering, tax avoidance and luxury yachts, and how they manage to make it stand up to scrutiny is portrayed in vivid, thrilling detail by an author who was herself a national journalist back in the day. Danny and Allie achieve their objective, but there’s collateral damage along the way that may come back to bite them.

Meanwhile, Allie is working on building up her contacts in the light of the upcoming devolution referendum, and it is when she attends a local political meeting that she stumbles upon another story that could put her name in lights. It features three young men with big mouths and even bigger plans, and to get to the heart of it she is going to need Danny’s help. Find your most comfortable reading nook, stock up on goodies and drinks and settle down for the long haul, because you won’t want to put this one down in a hurry.

In a first for this reviewer, I also listened to 1979 as an audiobook and was impressed by the narration skills of Scottish actress Katie Leung, who deftly brought all of the characters to life – both male and female – and handled the changes of pace and tone well. McDermid is a vivid writer and her descriptive work shone in the hands of an expert narrator. I enjoyed this ‘double bubble’ experience and will definitely be doing it again!

It is strange, in this era of instant news, social media, blogs and podcasts, to look at back at how things have altered in less than half a century. Here we have reporters clattering on typewriters, creating copies of their stories via carbon paper, using Teeline shorthand (and a neat new innovation, a miniature voice recorder) for interviews and running to phone boxes to dictate their copy to subs. It is all so authentically portrayed I could almost smell the printing ink and feel the vibration as the presses rolled.

That write-what-you-know cliche certainly rings true in 1979, with McDermid’s pin sharp attention to detail and uncanny ear for dialogue bringing the narrative alive. It is a detour from her other crime series and, like Denise Mina’s The Field of Blood, which also features a young female journalist, it is a welcome addition to the world of Scottish crime. This is a book I laughed and cried over, and one that is destined to linger long in the memory. Book two, 1989, arrives on 18 August and I plan to be first in the queue for a copy. Care to join me?

Read our 2018 interview with Val McDermid. Here’s our pick of 10 of the best crime novels about journalists.


CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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