Source: Review copy
Publication: 19 August 2021 from Little, Brown
My thanks to the publisher for the opportunity to review
The shadows hide a deadly story . . .
1979. It is the winter of discontent, and reporter Allie Burns is chasing her first big scoop. There are few women in the newsroom and she needs something explosive for the boys’ club to take her seriously.
Soon Allie and fellow journalist Danny Sullivan are exposing the criminal underbelly of respectable Scotland. They risk making powerful enemies – and Allie won’t stop there.
When she discovers a home-grown terrorist threat, Allie comes up with a plan to infiltrate the group and make her name. But she’s a woman in a man’s world . . . and putting a foot wrong could be fatal.
Val McDermid has magic flowing from her fingers. The Queen of Crime is in her element in 1979, the first book in her latest series. This one has Allie Burns, news journalist as its protagonist and in introducing us to Allie’s world in the Glasgow Clarion, McDermid beautifully and evocatively recreates the smells sounds and attitudes prevalent in a Glasgow newsroom in that era.
For all the smoky atmosphere, the male cocks o’the walk, the reliance on drink to get you through a shift; this is a love letter to journalism and she makes you mourn its passing just as you recognise the days of bigotry, misogyny and rampant sexism.
These are the times in which newsrooms thrum with staff; where there is an expenses budget and reporters are expected to go out looking for stories rather than be chained to a desk with a telephone.
Set at a pivotal moment in history, 1979 has the first devolution referendum in Scotland as the backdrop with the winter of discontent and a Callaghan Labour Government paving the way for the rise of Thatcherism. The Provisional IRA are conducting their terror campaign with car bombs and shootings and the Shankhill Butchers, a group of 11 loyalists, have been sentenced for 19 sectarian murders.
McDermid, whose own journalism experience informs this book and whose spirit runs through it like Blackpool in a stick of rock, brings it all gloriously to life, capturing the essence of the times and places enhanced by references to the music, films, and theatre of the day.
It is this world that Allie Burns, a Cambridge graduate from a working class background, has to negotiate as she strives to carve out a place in her new place of employment, The Clarion. Smart, ambitious and a good writer with a sub’s flair for intros and snappy paragraphs, Allie is ambitious and determined. She is also isolated in the male dominated newsroom and a wee bit lonely. Allie makes a friend on whom she comes to rely. Rhona Dunsyre is on the features desk and is keen to help another woman in the newsroom. It’s a welcome friendship for Allie whose social life is non-existent.
She quickly realises that she’s never going to be handed the interesting jobs; in fact even when she finds a story its more likely to be taken away from her and handed to a more experienced (ie male) journo. Allie is fed up doing the soft and human interest stories. She wants something she can get her teeth into.
So, when she is approached by the one male journalist with whom she has some rapport, Danny Sullivan, to help him craft a story he is working on the QT, she agrees. It is the first of two major stories that form the backbone of this murder mystery. The second is a story that Allie brings to Danny; an explosive scoop that carries serious risk. Both stories are hard journalism; both have some very shady characters at their heart and Allie and Danny know that these are the stories that will make their careers if handled correctly.
Their challenge is to get the stories far enough along before taking them to their editor, so that there’s no danger that they can be taken away from the pair. That means sticking their necks out rather further than they might like, but no pain, no gain, as they say.
Val McDermid’s book is beautifully paced to allow you to steep yourself in the culture of the times and in the characters that populate the book. As a reader you gain an appreciation of what both Allie and Danny are up against as their personal lives and their professional ones become intertwined. The tension – and it is there in spades, comes from the danger inherent in the stories and the fear for these two characters as they pursue their stories.
Verdict: I really loved this book. Val McDermid’s sharp and incisive writing brings the characters and the settings to life in vivid, three dimensional colour – so tangible you can smell it. 1979 has tremendous heart and a lot of wit. You care about Allie and Danny and Danny’s family difficulties tear at your emotions. Tense, thrilling, rich with atmosphere and crackling with authenticity, this is at once a shocking and thrilling mystery and a love letter to journalism, warts and all. This is a five star must read start to an unmissable new series. I can’t wait to meet Allie Burns again.
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Val McDermid is a number one bestseller whose novels have been translated into forty languages, and have sold over seventeen million copies. She has won many awards internationally, including the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year and the LA Times Book of the Year Award. She was inducted into the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame in 2009, was the recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2010 and received the Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award in 2011. In 2016, Val received the Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and in 2017 received the DIVA Literary Prize for Crime, and was elected a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Val has served as a judge for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize, and was Chair of the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017. She is the recipient of six honorary doctorates, is an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford and a Professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand. She writes full time and divides her time between Edinburgh and East Neuk of Fife.