Review: Novel about journalism a homage to the 1970s

In this week's edition of Book Box, The Sunday Times looks at new titles on politics, from a slew of fresh insights into Malaysian intrigue to former United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton's thriller debut



By Val McDermid

Little, Brown/ Paperback/ 418 pages/ $29.95/ Books Kinokuniya


Scottish author Val McDermid, whose best-selling mystery novels have been translated into more than 40 languages and sold over 17 million copies, has produced her first new series with a fresh protagonist in nearly two decades.

McDermid, best known for the books that inspired British crime drama Wire In The Blood (2002 to 2008), revives the tumultuous politics of 1979 Scotland in this novel featuring fearless rookie journalist Allie Burns, who is determined to leave her mark in a "man's world".

She and her colleague Danny Sullivan embark on groundbreaking investigative reporting, gunning for the next front-page splash in the hope of catapulting their careers into the big league.

The usual tropes are there in this slow-burn thriller: illicit dalliances and period-typical sexism against Burns, who is assumed to be better suited to soft stories about miracle babies than hard-nosed crime reporting.

Tensions run high amid a devolution referendum for a Scottish Parliament with more independence from London.

At the same time in neighbouring Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army is resorting to violence to force cessation of British rule.

Against this volatile political backdrop, Burns and Sullivan go snooping around for scoops, including uncovering a tax evasion scheme and a plot to bomb domestic targets.

Yet the adrenaline rush of chasing a lead and the dopamine high of landing a scoop are diluted by McDermid's tendency to tell, not show: "How could she aspire to being an investigative journalist when she still hadn't mastered the art of fitting in?"

The result is an easily readable novel that feels more like an indulgent homage to the 1970s - McDermid was a journalist herself in 1979 - than an ode to responsible investigative journalism.

There are instances of dubious ethics that ought to pose greater moral conundrums even if the newspaper in question is a tabloid.

And there are reminders, repeated to a tiresome degree, of why the work that the journalists are doing is important.

One wonders if the same point might be better made with a series set in the modern day, with a plot more relatable to a generation used to getting their news on social media.

If you like this, read: Catch And Kill by Ronan Farrow (Little, Brown, 2020, $21.81, Books Kinokuniya). The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter details his investigation of the conspiracy of silence around Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's alleged sexual abuse of women.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 07, 2021, with the headline Review: Novel about journalism a homage to the 1970s. Subscribe