1979 by Val McDermid

I finished this book, which says something I suppose. There’s many a 99p Kindle deal I’ve sampled for 50 pages or so and then abandoned, but not this one. But perhaps that’s because, although I have a number of books in the queue, there was nothing in particular I was desperate to get to. I mean, I’ve moved on to a Le Carré, and after that maybe I’ll finish Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy, or pick up the 50/50 chance of a Kim Stanley Robinson. But none of these has the urgency of a new Robert Charles Wilson or even Emily St. John Mandel.

Val McDermid apparently plans a series of books featuring the main protagonist here: Allie Burns, a journalist. Each one will drop into a decade towards its end. This, the first, takes us into 1979 — but not very far into it, really.

It’s the winter of discontent, the last gasp of the great heyday of trade union power, and Scotland is heading towards a devolution referendum while Britain as a whole is careening towards Thatcherism and Loadsamoney. Newspapers, on the other hand, are six years away from the desktop publishing revolution and Wapping. You can quite see how the landscape is going to change over the next decade for Allie Burns when the series drops into 1989.

Here, she’s a young journalist at a fictional Glasgow newspaper, the Clarion, a typical tabloid of the hot metal era, complete with a journalistic drinking culture, newsroom sexism, and a strong feeling that Scotland really is a different country, very distant from that London, the Callaghan government, and all that was to come. (I was a little offended, by the way, that at one point the print unions are described as ‘corrupt’. Ahem. First of all, that’s my father’s union you’re talking about. And second of all, have you met Rupert Murdoch?)

All of which is fascinating, right? Britain on the cusp of change, the system stacked against progressive politics (homosexuality still illegal North of the border in 1979), sectarianism in Scotland, peak IRA, high taxes, all that. And yet, in spite of this social history backdrop I was just not grabbed by this book.

Allie is pals with another young journalist, Danny, who doesn’t condescend to her like the others, and needs her help on a story he’s been working on the back burner. Danny has a nose for news but isn’t the writer that Allie obviously is. So they team up on a couple of investigative stories. I’m always interested when a narrative includes non-fiction genres within the fiction, and one of the things McDermid does is include the text of the stories Allie writes. She also throws in enough Scottish dialect to remind you where you are. The first investigative story concerns a tax fraud scheme and the second is related to Scottish nationalism. Along the way there’s the usual tabloid fodder of miracle babies, gratuitous nudity, and stories coming down the agency wires.

But as I said, I wasn’t grabbed. Is this because journalists make unconvincing heroes? I think McDermid wants you to smell the hot metal and ink, taste the terrible Scottish food and feel the whisky burning in your throat, but it doesn’t quite work. There’s a lot of local colour but in the end, the plot flops.

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