Craig Sisterson

1989 by Val McDermid

by Val McDermid
Little, Brown Paperback (UK), February 2023

Every year legendary Scottish storyteller Val McDermid harnesses her own popularity to showcase some of the most interesting new voices in the genre at her sold-out “New Blood” panel at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, England. (This year’s panel included South Carolina debut novelist Stacy Willingham, British-Australian author Emma Styles, and indigenous filmmaker turned crime novelist Michael Bennett.) But while McDermid is always keen to uplift and shine light on others, her latest novel 1989 shows the modern-day Queen of Crime’s own crown still glistens brightly.

Ten years on in time and place from last year’s introduction to the life and crimes (solving) of Allie Burns, the Scottish journalist is now living in Manchester with her girlfriend Rona, tapping out stories and managing freelancers as head of northern news for a tabloid with a notorious owner.

AIDS is rampant, the world is mourning Lockerbie victims killed in a terrorist bombing of a Pan Am flight, and both the Iron Curtain and the Iron Lady (conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) are still standing strong—for now. It’s a time soaked in grief, and meanwhile Allie’s big boss, Ace Lockhart, is in a media war with Rupert Murdoch while also—unbeknownst to almost everyone—being the target of someone linked to his wartime past.

Allie’s investigations into why AIDS patients are migrating south from Scotland are getting warped and rewritten into sensationalist trash to fuel hysteria. As Allie digs into truths powerful people want hidden, she journeys to East Berlin, putting herself behind an Iron Curtain that’s beginning to corrode.

1989 is a wonderfully absorbing novel that gets increasingly layered as chapters fly by. McDermid masterfully juggles several big real-life issues along with intertwined crime plotlines: abduction, pseudo-spy craft, murder, revenge. From Allie and Rona to several new faces, the characters are fascinating. Two books in, this is a terrific series, and I can’t wait to see what unfolds as the millennium looms.

MS Winter Issue #174A review of this novel first appeared in Mystery Scene Issue #174, Winter.