1979 unfolds in three acts: the first involves Allie and Danny working together on his story; for the second they team up on a story of Allie’s that involves Scottish independence and a potential terrorist threat, while the third joins the dots in the clever ways that McDermid’s readers have come to expect of a consummate plotter.
Along the way there are the delights of McDermid’s liberal use of the Scots dialect as championed by the great Robert Burns himself. Danny’s brother Joseph is “sleekit”, nicely glossed as “smooth, sly and as non-stick as a Teflon frying pan”. As always, McDermid is also attentive to what her characters get to eat, Allie’s speciality being stovies, a recipe McDermid herself has championed in her hilarious online cooking classes aptly entitled “Cooking the Books”.
With its retrospective feminist rage, its Glaswegian setting and a relatable central character, 1979 has all the ingredients for yet another successful McDermid series.
There’s a nice moment in A Slow Fire Burning when one of the characters ponders the possibility of writing a crime novel entitled The Boy on The Boat. This could well have been the title of Hawkins’ latest book since the crime that precipitates events is the murder of a young man on a narrow boat moored on the Regent’s Canal in London. There’s a topographical map to help the reader work out the logistics of the scene.
The body is discovered by Miriam, who lives on a neighbouring boat and is acutely aware of how she is perceived as “a fat old spinster, tree-hugger, knit your own yoghurt curtain twitcher”.
But Miriam, like all the characters in this multi-layered book, is so much more. For a start, there’s Laura, the self-harming damaged young woman who works in the local laundrette and who was with the victim the night he died. And then there’s Irene, the elderly lady who Laura helps (and steals from) who effectively functions as the moral compass of a story that sets off in many different directions at once to end with an answer – but also many more questions.
Hawkins has spoken in the past about the authors and the books that have inspired her. They include Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and the novels of Kate Atkinson with their “exceptionally crafted characters”.
A Slow Fire Burning reveals just how much Hawkins has learned from her mentors. It’s complicated, beautifully observed and extremely unsettling.