Charming is not a word that typically comes to mind in connection with Val McDermid’s crime novels. One of the ace practitioners of the “Tartan Noir” school of hard-boiled fiction (along with William McIlvanney, Ian Rankin and Denise Mina), McDermid has written some 36 mysteries, many of them bestsellers. Hailing from a working-class background, McDermid has always packed her stories with a streetwise humor and a fierce impatience with how most institutions still favor the rich, the White, the male.
And, the straight. McDermid’s very first mystery, “Report for Murder,” was published in 1987 and featured lesbian journalist Lindsay Gordon. Back then, McDermid was part of an advance wave of crime writers like Liza Cody, Sandra Scoppettone and J.M. Redmann who were reclaiming the genre for gay characters who had been demonized as twisted sisters in traditional hard-boiled fiction. The other series McDermid went on to create featured straight main characters — like private investigator Kate Brannigan and the team of clinical psychologist Dr. Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan (eventually replaced by DCI Alex Fielding) — usually surrounded by a diverse secondary cast.
Ian Rankin took on the challenge of finishing his mentor’s book. The result is a darkly beautiful novel.
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.” More than three decades later, McDermid looks back in anger — and with some measure of affection — at the vexed era she lived through that gave rise to her socially engaged mysteries.
Allie Burns is the engaging main character of “1979.” She grew up in a Scottish mining village, got herself to Cambridge, and after a couple of years of what we might now call “internships,” has landed a reporting job on a tabloid called the Daily Clarion. (Allie tells us that the Clarion’s motto is: “ ‘One adult in two in Scotland reads the Clarion.’ The wags in the office added, “the other one cannae read.’ ”) Alienated from her parents and tolerated as an outsider in the newsroom because of her gender and reserved temperament, Allie is grateful when fate throws her together with a young colleague, Danny Sullivan, on the train to Glasgow. Both are returning from celebrating the Scots new year celebration of Hogmanay with their respective families. (One of the treats of McDermid’s novels has always been these quick doses of Scottish culture and dialect.)
On board that train, Allie and Danny help deliver a baby who arrives unexpectedly. Allie then writes up a story about what she knows the Clarion will inevitably dub the “miracle baby.” Like Allie, Danny is frustrated by the limits of journalism as practiced at the Clarion. On his own initiative, Danny has been investigating a story about tax dodgers, which he thinks will transform him into: “a Scottish Woodward or Bernstein.” Soon, Allie joins him — both of them more Bernsteins, in their restless energy and shambling attire, than “clean-cut” Woodwards. And, eventually, the duo move on to an even bigger story: infiltrating and exposing a homegrown terrorist group that calls itself the “Scottish Republican Army.”
The charm of “1979” derives from deeper sources than these cosmetic mentions of contemporary films and music. (Although McDermid does append a nifty list at the end of this novel of personal “Top 40” tunes that she listened to during the writing process, making this reader remember just how many earwigs the music of the era generated. Even to read the titles, “Brass in Pocket” by the Pretenders and “YMCA” by Village People is to surrender to an endless brain loop.)
It’s the tone and the plot itself of “1979” that seem agreeably retro. There’s a single act of violence here, certainly more sad than gory or even, frankly, surprising. And sex, while it’s important to this mystery, is a topic that’s talked about among the characters with effort and, in keeping with the times, dramatized discreetly by McDermid. Instead, what does occupy the center of this story is the coming-of-age tale of Allie — how she finds her footing as a reporter and as an adult woman:
“How could she aspire to being an investigative journalist when she still hadn’t mastered the art of fitting in? . . . In a backhanded compliment, her old boss had once said, ‘You do so well because you’re the opposite of glamorous. Women don’t see you as a threat, and men treat you like a sister.’ But that was as far as it went. All these months at the Clarion and she was still firmly an outsider. . . . She needed a new motto. ‘More gallus, less feart,’ as her grandmother would put it.
“She’d show them.”
“1979” is as much a female bildungsroman as it is a suspense story — and that’s not meant to be a backhanded compliment. McDermid vividly summons up that young adult state of confusion (that many of her longtime female readers may recall) when brazenness alternates with bewilderment; when you insist that the world see you and simultaneously tell you who you are. This first novel featuring Allie Burns is the debut of a new series that will proceed decade by decade. I, for one, am eager to see how she has become more at home in her own skin, 10 years on.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Val McDermid
Atria. 432pp. $27
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