Saturday, August 6, 2022

Review: 1979

1979 by Val McDermid (Little, Brown, 2021)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

1979. It's the winter of discontent, and Allie Burns is chasing her first big scoop. One of few women in the newsroom, she needs something explosive for the boys' club to take her seriously.

Soon Allie and fellow reporter Danny Sullivan are making powerful enemies with their investigations - and Allie won't stop there. When she discovers a terrorist threat close to home, she devises a dangerous plan to make her name.

But Allie is a woman in a man's world . . . and putting a foot wrong could be fatal.

Back in the ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction’ there were four leading authors dubbed the Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L Sayers. Their output thrilled readers and critics alike, then and since, and has been enjoyed by generations. Chatting to some fellow critics and awards judges a while back, we wondered who’d be the modern, living equivalents?

For me, you write the names Val McDermid and Sara Paretsky with permanent marker, then debate the other two spots (with many marvelous contenders). Pioneers both, McDermid and Paretsky have continued to elevate the crime genre thirty five-plus years on from their debuts. 

Scottish author McDermid continues to push herself to new heights, a decade after she received the prestigious Cartier Diamond Dagger, which honoured her outstanding career in crime fiction and impact on our genre. Recently she has taken the protagonists of both her active, long-running series (cold case detective Karen Pirie in one series, psychologist Tony Hill and chief detective Carol Jordan in the other) through some fascinating arcs. Audacious ones, even, in the latter case.

Now, McDermid launches her first new series in almost twenty years, and it’s a belter from the beginning. In 1979, young Glasgow reporter Allie Burns is keen to make a mark in her misogynistic newsroom, so when her colleague Danny Sullivan asks for help on a story linking powerful businessmen to criminal activity, she leaps at the chance. Meanwhile Allie may have uncovered a homegrown terrorist threat relating to cries in some quarters for Scottish nationalism and independence. Will Allie and Danny’s investigations become career-making stories, career-ending ones, or worse?

McDermid masterfully immerses readers in late 1970s Glasgow, a time of rising political tensions and a changing society, delivering a compulsive novel that’s further enriched by the echoes of McDermid’s own past as a pioneering journalist battling against prejudice on multiple fronts in that era. It's a troubled time, with the threat of terrorism from across the Irish Sea, and perhaps closer to home, and the looming presence of Margaret Thatcher ascending to power in the UK, upturning life as many knew it. 

Allie Burns is a fascinating centrepiece who's easy to follow, and if McDermid hadn't already confirmed 1979 was kickstarting an ongoing series, both she as a character and readers alike would be yelling for one. An excellent tale from a storyteller who continues to set the bar high. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of Australian, Scottish, and NZ crime writing awards, and is co-founder of Rotorua Noir. He's the author of the HRF Keating award-shortlisted non-fiction book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, and the series editor of acclaimed anthology DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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