1979, Val McDermid

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

The first in the Allie Burns series, 1979 was released in 2021 with the second, 1989 out in October 2022. It was the arrival of the second book that made me realise I hadn't read the the first - and then I realised I'm behind with the Karen Pirie novels (now a TV series into the bargain), and well, there are times when I worry that I'm not going to catch up with everything I want to read ever again.

But 1979, needless to say, is set in 1979, with journalist Allie Burns based in Glasgow and looking for the next big story that will make the boy's club at the paper she works for sit up and take notice. Back then, the sexism was overt, as was the harassment and the really bad behaviour, and Burns is struggling as a woman in the testosterone / booze soaked world of the newspaper news rounds. When colleague Danny Sullivan turns to her for help in crafting the story he's chasing - international tax fraud and terrorism, things get very serious, and very dangerous. 

I'm old enough to have been "there" in 1979, although scarily it turns out I don't remember everything as well as I would have liked. Of course it's always possible that 1979 Glasgow was a very different place from 1979 Melbourne. As a country-girl gone to the big smoke, Melbourne was alive. The swinging sixties always seemed to have arrived in my world in the 70's. We hung out at gay clubs, we partied ... hard, we didn't take life at all seriously and we, well we did everything hard and fast. So, whilst some of the details of 1979 (the novel) rang bells, some of it didn't quite ring as true as I would have liked. It seemed more - buttoned up / hesitant / forced - than I remember. 

Perhaps the sense of timeframe was also affected by what felt like a treacle slowness to the story. I really struggled to get into it for most of the novel, struggled to get a really good connection with Burns, and found myself empathising with Sullivan and the godawful situation of his family and his personal life, but only sometimes. Mind you, for something as glacially slow as most of this novel was, the ending arrived in a rush that felt like somebody had finally found the power cord for the blow-torch, melted the ice and decided to get this thing over the line come hell or high water.

Of course, as you'd expect from an author as good as Val McDermid, there are glimpses of potential here. Burns is obviously looking at that period of time from the viewpoint of McDermid's own experience. Maybe once the awfulness of the way women were treated in those days is done and dusted, and the investigative journalist starts to step to the forefront more, this will be a series that gets it's skates on. Even though there were times that 1979 was a bit of a slog for this reader, 1989 is on the "for goodness sake get to it" reading pile.

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The year started badly and only got worse–blizzards, strikes, power cuts, and political unrest were the norm. For journalist Allie Burns, however, someone else's bad news was the unmistakable sound of opportunity knocking, and the year is ripe with possibilities. But Allie is a woman in a man's world. Desperate to get away from the "women's stories" the Glasgow desk keeps assigning her, she strikes up an alliance with wannabe investigative journalist Danny Sullivan. From the start, their stories create enemies. First an international tax fraud, then a potential Scottish terrorist group aiming to cause mayhem ahead of the impending devolution referendum. And then Danny is found murdered in his flat. For Allie, investigative journalism just got personal.

The first novel in McDermid's newest series, 1979 is an atmospheric journey into the past with intriguing insight into the present, and the latest addition to McDermid's crime pantheon. 

Review 1979, Val McDermid
Karen Chisholm
Sunday, January 15, 2023
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