by Val McDermid

A Review

‘He unscrewed the jar and took out a capsule. They were dark green, he’d read, so they woudn’t deteriorate in sunlight. From his pocket he took out a small vial of white powder …… Then he replaced the vitamins with the white powder and reassembled the capsule …… He didn’t know when the cyanide would catch up with its intended victim. But it was only a matter of time.’

The opening image of this 2022 thriller is a house on a lonely Scottish island. This prologue, if it is to affect the plot, will take time. Nevertheless, it gives warning of suspense to come as we wait for events to unfold.

1989 could well be described as historical fiction. The events of that year, and the last months of 1988, are impressed on the public memory: the Lockerbie bombing; the AIDS epidemic; the Hillsborough disaster; the fall of the Berlin wall.

All feature in the novel.

The story proper begins in a dismal Lockerbie, where Allie Burns, top journalist with a tabloid, is attending the memorial service for the victims of the November 1988 bombing. From there, she is called away to cover another story about an aborted AIDS drug trials. Why are so many AIDS/HIV patients leaving Edinburgh for English cities?

‘ “There will be a trial and you will be sentenced to a very long period in prison,” the woman cut in. “We do not like spies in our country.” ‘

The trail leads Allie from Edinburgh and Manchester to East Berlin, where the cancelled drug trial is now being conducted in secret; the people involved here are more careless of human life than are the Scots. A dangerous plan to aid an East German scientist cross to the West results in Allie’s arrest as a spy by the STASI. She is threatened with prison, but is rescued by Genny, daughter of Ace Lockhart, media magnate and owner of Allie’s newspaper. Lockhart is not a very nice man but is persuaded to intervene by Allie’s partner Rona, whom he is trying to recruit for a dream job.

‘Genevieve realised too late what he planned. She tried to stop him, but he had his knee in the small of her back and was twisting her arms up behind her.’

Then later, when Genny is involved in an ill-conceived plot to extract money from Ace (money he doesn’t have), he sends Allie back to Berlin (West) to return the favour and ‘rescue’ Genny in turn.

However, Allie’s best story comes from an unexpected quarter. The net is closing round Lockhart, who has been fund-dipping, and his Nazi-era past is catching up with him. And often, when that happens, family is tainted by association. The climax of 1989 doesn’t have the psychological bite of some of McDermid’s earlier fiction, but is satisfying enough. Justice is served and Allie gets her professional freedom.

‘[Ace] felt the quickening of his pulse and a tightening across his forehead. With a sense of dread, he turned it over. The message was unequivocal: YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE LEFT.’

1989 ‘ticked many boxes’ for me, not to mention the name of two principle characters! Lockerbie was a favourite stopping place when in the 1970s and 1980s I was making regular trips from East Anglia to Scotland. Moreover, I spent time in East Berlin shortly before the Wall fell, without falling foul of the authorities. The Edinburgh featured here is the Edinburgh of Irvine Walsh’s Trainspotting – thankfully not my city at all. Finally, that fictional Scottish Island. My first student vacation (a long time ago) was spent on a real island not unlike it.

Val McDermid always tells a good story and 1989 is no exception. I suspect that, here more than in other novels, she gives the reader a glimpse of herself, by her choice of characters and in her championing of female – and gay – rights. Has that happened to you, Val? I wondered.


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