Book Review: 1989 by Val McDermid

In the next installment to her historical crime series, internationally bestselling author Val McDermid delivers a propulsive new thriller following journalist Allie Burns as the Cold War and AIDS crisis deliver a nonstop tide of news, and an unexpected murder. Read on for Janet Webb's review!

A man sails to Ranaig, an obscure, fictional Scottish island. He’s on a mission to kill.

He’d been working out how to kill Wallace Lockhart for months, evolving and discarding plans one after the other till his researches had eventually led him to this. It matched his existing skills, it embraced elements of poetic justice, and it had the added beauty of not requiring an alibi. A man would die, but the timing was impossible to predict.

 

Whenever it happened, his avenging angel would be far away. The only downside was that, as he lay dying, he would not know which of his inhumanities he was dying for.

Wallace Lockhart, the island’s owner, shared in an interview with a travel magazine that he never went anywhere without his personalized naturopath-developed vitamin capsules. A perfect vessel for the white powder the island intruder thoughtfully provides: “He didn’t know when the cyanide would catch up with its intended victim. But it was only a matter of time.” It’s a chilling opening to a complicated historical crime story. 

The history depicted in 1989 feels like yesterday, not thirty-three years earlier; it’s that vivid. N.B. Val McDermid published 1979, the first Allie Burns novel, in 2021 and she plans to continue the series of decades-spaced mysteries. The Allie Burns of 1979 is a fledgling journalist, naïve perhaps, but intelligent (she’s a recent Cambridge grad). She’s committed to the newspaper business. Georgetown literature professor Maureen Corrigan, writing in the Washington Post, introduced the series. 

McDermid’s latest, “1979” returns to where she started — namely, a crime story about a female investigative journalist in Glasgow who’s wrestling with the misogyny of her workplace and barely articulated questions about her own sexuality. McDermid says in her Acknowledgments that she herself was a young “journalist living and working in Glasgow in 1979.” 

Corrigan describes McDermid’s novels as “socially engaged mysteries,” an apt description since the events of the day—particularly the messy, awkward moments—drive Allie’s journalistic engine. Ten years later, Allie is no longer a journalist but rather the northern news editor of the Sunday Globe. Her boss, Wallace Lockhart, fancies himself another Rupert Murdoch—beating the Australian news baron fuels his ambitions daily. 

Allie Burns lurks outside the Lockerbie memorial service, hoping to snabble some fresh stories for her newspaper. She isn’t an invited guest like the PM and the US ambassador and other illustrious people.

And walking close on their heels, the unmistakable bulk of Wallace ‘Ace’ Lockhart. A couple of inches over six feet, solid legs bearing the wide body of a heavyweight boxer gone to seed, the newspaper proprietor was upholstered in a double-breasted black coat with an astrakhan collar. He topped it off with the inevitable homburg that Allie believed he wore solely because he thought it lent him a resemblance to Churchill, especially when he was smoking one of his Cohiba Esplendidos.

Allie has no love for Lockhart: he’s a bully who wrecked her life. Before he bought the Globe & Clarion group, “she’d been happily running the investigations unit of the Sunday Globe.” Lockhart fired practically everyone, he shut down the investigations unit, and “added insult to injury by giving her the meaningless title of northern news editor. Boss of sweet fuck all.” She doesn’t want to chase headlines, she wants to dig deep and write stories that make a difference. Fat chance with him in charge. After the service he tracks down Allie and tells her to make sure any story she writes has some good pictures of him.

Only four days into the new year, and already Allie was despising herself for being at the beck and call of Ace Lockhart’s monstrous ego. Not for the first time, she wondered how her dreams and ambitions had slumped so low.

Allie’s partner Rona is also in the news business although she works the entertainment side of the street. They met in Glasgow, “managed to stay under the gaydar for a few years,” but they eventually moved to Manchester, a more accepting environment. 1989 has the potential to be a Where’s Waldo type of plot, with Allie popping up in the most news-worthy spots of the year’s calendar but Val McDermid is far too skilled a writer to let that happen. Allie and Rona have a fabulous, tight group of friends in Manchester, many of whom are gay. Men who are living through the sad, desperate initial days of the AIDS crisis. Their friend Jess is working on the frontlines.

“My group is prepping for a clinical trial of a combined therapy to prevent HIV-positive people from developing pneumocystis. We’re excited about it, because it’s such a major life-threatening infection for patients with AIDS. And I also heard today that one of the research groups reckons they’ve got some promising leads towards a vaccine against HIV.”

 

‘That’d be a game changer,”’ Bill said.

 

“No kidding,” Jess said.

Spurred on by her friends’ stories, Allie begs them for access to men and women working to find a cure for AIDS; they’re worried, because they don’t want to be vilified in the tabloids. Allie writes the investigative story of her career, only to have the bigots that run the paper transform it into a homophobic, cruel, and vile piece. She is furious. Her time for seething and obsessing is over. She hops on a train to London and heads to her editor’s favorite watering hole, the Subs Bar. She traps Gerry Richardson in his booth and dumps a load on his head.

“I resign, Gerry. I’m far too good a journalist to carry on working for an ignorant bigot who’s too stupid to realise how stupid he is. If brains were shit, Gerry, you’d be constipated. I’ve worked for some bloody good news editors over the years, and you’re so far from being one of them, you might as well be in fucking Australia.”

Whoa! “She turned on her heel and marched out, head high, to a chorus of cheers and applause.” She goes down in a blaze of glory.

A metaphor for 1989 is trains on parallel tracks, racing to an unknown destination. Readers know that Wallace Lockhart is going to die but they don’t know when. Or who wants him dead—and why? How will his death impact Allie’s investigations into AIDs research: she discovered financial irregularities in the work that stretch across the English Channel to behind the Iron Curtain. Eastern Europe is in turmoil: every day there are stories of desperate East Germans risking everything to cross the wall from Communism to Freedom. I challenge you to pick a year more intense in its recent history than 1989. It’s a tour de force from Val McDermid—bring on 1999.

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