Book Review: ‘1979’ Launches a New Mystery Series from Val McDermid

Several years ago, I dove into a genre described as ‘Tartan noir’ – mysteries set in Scotland. I did some digging into authors and found several women, including several lesbians so that was a promising start.

In August 2021, Scottish author Val McDermid published her 35th novel and the launch of the first series she’s begun in more 25 years. ‘1979’ follows journalist Allie Burns at the beginning of her career. She faces all the obstacles you might imagine professional women in any field endured in 1979. Yet, she persists and takes on two pivotal investigations with the support of her talented colleague Danny Sullivan.

The novel introduced me to a world of Scottish Independence politics, the activities of the IRA, and an exquisite glimpse into the minutia of working class Scottish life. And LGBTQ community. You don’t meet a lot of LGBTQ characters in any 1979 novel so that’s a refreshing if harrowing glimpse. Spoiler: Allie is not LGBTQ identified in this novel.

What I liked most about this book was the absence of violence targeting the female protagonist. There is violence, there is loss, fear, and danger. But Allie is not gratuitously sacrificed for titillation or bloodlust. She’s a smart, competent young woman who uses her formidable intellect and skills to solve the crimes. She’s new to the financial and political worlds at the heart of the mysteries, as she’s walked through the details – so are we. It is very cleverly done.

I was eight years old in the titular year so my familiarity with world politics was skant. McDermid does a nice job of parsing the unique circumstances while still connecting the universal dots – the classic Tolstoy set up:
“All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” as we learn about Allie and Danny’s respective families; workplace sexism; political unrest; even the economics of college studies are familiar and accessible in 2023 Pennsylvania.

This is a very well-written book with an interesting larger arc to jump through entire decades between the novels. With the gift of hindsight, we know that radical changes in the professional of journalism, the identity of LGBTQ, and the politics of the UK await. But even with all of that context, McDermid makes the simple act of heating of leftovers and reading a good book feel fresh and novel, if I may.

I’ve also read one of McDermid’s Karin Pirie novels and watched the series streaming on BBC. I also liked that, but it was decidedly not free of violence.

I’m a little wary of McDermid’s identity as a radical feminist especially given recent anti-trans actions in Scotland and the entire UK. One of her books features a trans character so I’d say proceed with caution. I will likely read the next Allie Burns books and the rest of the Karen Pirie series. Then we’ll see. I hope the TERF’s who secretly read my blog will make themselves known, especially if they lay claim to McDermid.

I’d like to see the Wee Box folx incorporate some homegrown eBooks with their monthly packages.

Stay tuned … I’m about to finish a novel from another tremendous Scots queer woman writer, Denise Mina.

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