Val McDermid

Little, Brown, £20



Newspaper offices are filled with wannabe authors. Even the flintiest of news hounds believe they have a novel in them, whereas almost everyone on the arts desk is privately scribbling, digging an escape tunnel to literary glory, or so they hope.

This makes it all the more surprising that novels set in newspapers are relatively rare. With exceptions such as Iain Banks, Denise Mina and Liam McIlvanney – and before them Evelyn Waugh and Michael Frayn – it is an inexplicably under-explored arena.

Perhaps most journalists want to write about what they don’t know. Or maybe familiarity removes the sense of fascination.

This is a pity, because few settings are better suited to the demands of the novel: a self-contained, high-pressured environment peopled by competitive, egotistical workaholics, the whole underpinned by clamorous political and commercial interests.

Best of all, a paper legitimately has its finger in every corner of society, from scandals and corruption to heart-rending tragedies, via high court trials and lottery jackpots.

Knowing what fertile territory it is, former journalist Val McDermid made a shrewd move when she switched from traditional crime fiction to a series featuring an investigative journalist. Projected to run across five decades, it started with 1979, in which readers were introduced to Allie Burns, a Fifer whose years at Cambridge University made her realise how little she had in common with her family.

Allie started her career at the Clarion, a Glasgow newspaper manned – and it was mostly men – by individuals who thought female colleagues should stick to domestic subjects and leave the important stuff to blokes. “I’m a woman in a Neanderthal’s world,” she reflected.

The crime that propelled 1979 was financial skulduggery. Beneath this ran Allie’s personal life, and her hopes of a relationship with the least unappealing of the news team.

What she had not anticipated was falling for the star feature writer, Rona, with whom she is happily living in Manchester when 1989 begins.

Both novels are, if not nostalgic, then studded with a wealth of period detail intended to bring a wash of memories for those who remember the 1970s and 1980s.

Although 1989 touches on key moments such as the recent Lockerbie bombing, the Hillsborough disaster and Poll Tax protests, its prime focus is a figure who bears more than a passing resemblance to the media tycoon Robert Maxwell.

Ace Lockhart, who owns the Clarion and a slew of other papers, is a decorated war veteran, a survivor of the Nazi regime, which wiped out his Polish village.

When the novel opens, a murderer is making his way to Lockhart’s remote Scottish island to lace his vitamin pills with cyanide. That scene is planted like a grenade, to explode at some point in the future. Thereafter the clock is ticking as the plot gathers momentum.

This being McDermid, it whips along like bushfire, even though the prose is workaday and the dialogue too often does not sing.

Allie is frustrated as northern news editor for the Sunday Globe. Rona, meanwhile, is earning a small fortune as a freelance feature writer, her designer wardrobe reflecting her bank balance. She is not surprised when Lockhart offers her a top job, “He thinks I’m the f***ing best. And you can’t argue with that.”

Needless to say, Allie is not to be outshone: “I don’t get paid the big bucks for working a six-day week. I get paid the big bucks for the five minutes when I talk my way across a doorstep that nobody else can get past.”

On her own initiative, she follows a story about dodgy clinical trials for an Edinburgh drug for patients who are HIV-positive, which have been relocated to East Berlin.

In this, and other instances, she is propelled by a strong moral compass, to help the underdog and bring justice to those who are corrupt or cruel. If this inclination carries a whiff of smugness, it is easily forgotten in the hectic pace of unfolding events.

Ace Lockhart’s mission is not only to expand his empire, but to trounce Rupert Murdoch. The end of the 1980s was fraught, thanks to Murdoch’s stand-off with the print unions, which sent reverberations through the newspaper industry: “The bloody printers had been stirring things up again in the Glasgow building. They’d got wind of the London plans to bypass compositors and have journalists type their stories directly into the computer system.

“The London print unions were still chastened by what Rupert Murdoch had done to them, but in Glasgow, the natives were always more reckless. It had taken an appearance in the press hall by Lockhart himself to calm the bolshy b******s down.”

There are other occasions when we’re treated to a mini history lesson, as when Lockhart’s daughter Genevieve talks to a colleague: “It’s not like Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 …”

McDermid colourfully conveys the sometimes dreary, occasionally feverish mood of working on a tabloid. On one job, Allie recklessly takes on a boxer accused of battery by his estranged wife. Fired up by feminist fury, she doorsteps him with a snapper. Unsurprisingly, when ambushed by an accusatory hack, the thug goes for her as well.

It’s not the only battering Allie takes in the course of this often far-fetched and over-stretched plot. That incident, however, was a mere sideshow compared to the central issue, which is delving into Ace Lockhart’s past. That he has been siphoning off pension funds is the least of his crimes.

With the story moving into Europe, where the Soviet Bloc’s stranglehold is swiftly collapsing, Allie tries to help a scientist escape from East Berlin to West. Her plan is so, well, ludicrous, it raises questions about her much vaunted brilliance as an investigator.

The scope of McDermid’s novel is ambitious, but not wholly successful. Trying to place a single journalist at the heart of so many of the year’s turning points is a feat of plotting logistics that eventually strains credulity. McDermid’s legion of fans will no doubt devour it.

For me, it felt more like an intellectual exercise than an immersive read.