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1979: An Allie Burns Novel

Review

1979: An Allie Burns Novel

Val McDermid, the modern-day Queen of Crime, literally takes us back in time with her latest novel, 1979, which kicks off her first new series in nearly 20 years.

While it may have seemed like a more innocent time, there was much less tolerance in 1979. This will play a big part in the novel’s sensibility as the two protagonists are gay when it’s really not okay to admit this. That year also puts us on the precipice of a new decade, and with it the dreams of a future world where our lives would be better, if not easier. As you turn the last page, I bet you will be happy to return to our turbulent present.

In the prologue, a man braves a blizzard to proceed to his own destiny and a night of reckoning that will soon be at hand. Before the novel is over, you'll be able to piece together who he is, but it'll be too late to prevent what he's planning to do.

"As you turn the last page, I bet you will be happy to return to our turbulent present.... 1979 is classic Val McDermid and great fun from start to finish."

The setting is Scotland, and it is indeed a different time period from our own. In fact, when journalist Allie Burns decided to go to school at Cambridge, she may as well have been parachuting into Mars. The perspective that she gains from that experience will certainly help her when she returns to Scotland. Allie and her best friend/colleague, Danny Sullivan, write for the local paper The Clarion. Early on in the book, they help a woman give birth in public. It is not simply good PR for their paper, but an event they can truly bond over. Allie sees herself as a feminist, not a man-hater, and enjoys hanging out with Danny. Perhaps the fact that they are both closeted about their sexuality gives them more reason to stick by each other.

Allie will soon be “mentored” by another female writer, Rona Dunsyre, who also leads an alternate lifestyle and is able to show Allie how to do so inconspicuously so as to not make her already difficult career aspirations any harder. Allie gets hazed in a good-natured way at the paper but is determined to become a serious investigative journalist. She sees an opportunity when a tip that she and Danny follow leads to an iceberg in the form of some wealthy Scottish businesspeople who are possibly involved in a tax fraud scheme.

As Allie begins to tread in dangerous waters, she faces her first real threat as she questions Brian McGillivray, a Scottish businessman. Danny has his own period of awakening; at one point he turns to Allie and asks, “What have I done?” She takes this opportunity to answer with the best piece of advice she has to put his mind at ease: “The right thing.”

Allie and Danny find their investigative journalism snowballing, and it takes them to a very taboo area. 1979 was not a time to have a high-profile professional career and be openly gay. When their paths cross with Torrance, a closeted investigator who is a member of the Special Branch, they find themselves unwittingly in the face of true peril. Their work takes them from dirty businesspeople to closeted members of law enforcement and even those who rubbed shoulders with homegrown terrorists. The fact that Danny kept a notebook that had a list of individuals who led secret, alternative lifestyles puts him in more danger than he ever imagined.

When Allie comes to Danny’s place to find his head in the middle of a spreading pool of blood, she realizes that the feather they had ruffled has now led to one of them being permanently silenced. The crossroads that Allie stands at is one that not only will color the rest of her career, but may put her life in danger. She carefully seeks to avenge Danny’s murder and see that justice is served via the pages of The Clarion.

1979 is classic Val McDermid and great fun from start to finish. In the Acknowledgements, she reflects on being a journalist in 1979, much like Allie Burns, and that working on this novel was a potent reminder of how much you can forget. I especially loved the musical references and her inclusion of “My 1979 Top 40.” It’s an impressive list, and I could have seen myself swapping mix tapes with her. There are musical references throughout the story, including one about my favorite Bruce Springsteen album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Now, if I could just pick McDermid’s brain and find out why she omitted “My Sharona.”

Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 8, 2021

1979: An Allie Burns Novel
by Val McDermid

  • Publication Date: October 5, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802159028
  • ISBN-13: 9780802159021