Like a basking shark, Val McDermid once remarked, a crime series needs to keep moving or die. The same could be said of crime writers themselves, who work in a genre that has an inbuilt tendency to encourage repetition, often with dreary results in the long term. McDermid herself, however, has a refreshing habit of rarely treading water for long. Over the past 34 years, she’s published four very different crime series, a clutch of standalones, two books for children, a modern reworking of Northanger Abbey, and several non-fiction titles.
And now comes 1979, the first in a planned five-book series set at ten-year intervals up to the present. It’s the story of Allie Burns, a young woman from a working-class Fife family who has a job as a reporter on a Glasgow tabloid. She has a degree from Cambridge, a clear moral compass and a boundless determination to succeed in a man’s world where none of those qualities is particularly welcome. She knows what she’s up against: ‘I’m a woman in a Neanderthal’s world.’
McDermid herself was a journalist and experienced this milieu at first hand. She draws a remarkably vivid picture of the tabloid newsprint culture of 40 years ago — a boozy, nicotine-saturated blend of cynical editors, cosily complicit cops, corrupt but highly skilled printers, and journalists with expense accounts, few illusions and the occasional streak of bloody-minded idealism. One breakthrough depends on Allie’s knowledge of Teeline, a simplified version of shorthand that was an essential tool for a reporter.
As a woman, Allie tends to be given stories involving mothers giving birth on trains and nude models cavorting on beaches in January. But this is a McDermid novel, and things soon change. Working with Danny Sullivan, the least unsympathetic of her male colleagues, Allie stumbles on a scam involving tax fraud. The trouble is, Danny has a personal price to pay for breaking the story.
Another investigation brings a further complication. The movement for Scotland’s independence is gathering momentum, and a group of youthful hotheads plan to copy the IRA’s violent tactics. With Allie’s help, Danny goes undercover and infiltrates the cell, which leads to danger from an unexpected direction and toa very shocking climax.
McDermid can do edge-of-seat suspense better than most novelists. But what really lingers in the mind is the world she has created in 1979, long before the internet and the end of the Cold War. Among other things, she reminds us how much newspapers mattered in those days.
As with so much crime fiction, the novel’s setting serves as an implicit commentary on our own past and present. It will be fascinating to see how the settings evolve in later books. Familiar themes are already emerging — the media, gay culture and the movement for Scottish independence. In the meantime, we can enjoy this excellent opener to what promises to be an outstanding series.