1979 is not only a date!
1979 is the title of a murder mystery novel by Val McDermid. The reason for the title is that it is set in that year, although it was published in 2021. The author managed to research, write and publish her novel during Lockdown. A feat I too accomplished, as my novel, DOWN, was also set in the Winter of Discontent, 1978/9, and was self-published in June 2020. Of course, I can’t help noting certain of the similarities and the differences between the two, but they are not the only things I point out below.
Three Similarities between 1979 and Down
- An amateur detective solves the case, despite the failings of the police.
- Prejudices get in the way of rational thinking.
- Characters discuss social and political issues of the day.
The Three Big Differences
- 1979 is set in Glasgow and Down is set in Bristol.
- Down deals with a cold case, whilst that in Val McDermid’s book is far from cold.
- My hero is an elderly male solicitor but Val’s main character is a young female journalist.
Before we get to the murder, which occurs well into the second half of the story, the journalist is involved in two very different investigations. You might find that frustrating, but this approach allows us to get used to the characters and setting. It also lets us see possible motives for the murder. The investigations themselves provide interest and tension, especially the second one, which involves a terrorist plot. The police arrest the wrong person, as they always do in my novels. Therefore the journalist is forced to become an amateur detective. I have commented on the police in fact and fiction in previous posts. Sadly, they still need to improve – lots!
I did not guess the identity of the murderer until the end, but a few more suspects might have added something to the mystery.
Not only the main character but many others are well drawn and credible. I certainly found the struggles of a young woman to be accepted in the male dominated world of journalism in the 1970’s all too believable as was her anger at the prejudices in the police and society in general. In addition, we see her inner conflicts, which are due to her concern for a colleague and his family against her desire to land a good story. Knowing of the author’s early career in journalism, I fully expect she has drawn heavily on her own experience. There is a subplot in which main character’s thoughts on gender and sexuality go on a journey. Whether autobiographical or not, it gave another depth to this woman and to the story.
I have never visited Glasgow, but I now feel as if I have – back in 1979! The details of the different parts of the city, of many of its important buildings and characters inhabiting it make it come alive. Even food and the weather helped paint the picture.
Similarly, I have never worked on a newspaper, but the characters and their interaction seem utterly real, giving the book yet another layer of authenticity.
The political and social upheavals of 1979, particularly in Scotland, form an important part of the background to the story. For some this will be a trip down Memory Lane: for others, a lesson in history. In a note at the end, the author says she, and others, did a lot of research on this aspect, but I suspect she did much of it to confirm what she already knew or to add useful detail. For me, it was a reminder of how far we have come and how far we have not.
In general, the language of the book is standard English and easily readable. Scottish accents were indicated by the occasional word, such as dinna, canna, wee, polis, which are probably familiar to most readers. However, there were places where certain characters used lesser-known words, presumably of Scottish or more local dialect, such as weans, gallus, feart, stovies. These certainly added to the local atmosphere and did not detract from my understanding of the gist of the sentence, but some readers might find them irritating.
I found 1979 a fascinating and enjoyable story and recommend it.