This new novel powerfully depicts the part that lesbians played during the HIV/AIDS crisis


Allie Burns is back. The journalist who, in the first book in this series – 1979 – took her first, tentative baby steps into those two great “isms” –  journalism and lesbianism – returns ten years later in 1989 as a fully fledged doyenne of a gay scene battered by ten years of Thatcherism and decimated by the cruel plague that came to be known as AIDS. We are reminded of the part that lesbians played in supporting their gay brothers during this horrendous time – a contribution so often overlooked in the telling of the HIV/AIDS story – watching in horror as Allie’s friends fall victim to the relentless march of the disease. Allie does what she can to help, despite the disapproval of her employers who, it has to be said, appear to bear more than a passing resemblance to the late, disgraced media mogul Robert Maxwell and his daughter, Ghislaine Maxwell, banged up for enabling the crimes of serial sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein.

McDermid is not acknowledged as Britain’s foremost crime writer purely because of the tightness of her plotting and her skilled use of language where, like Dickens, she is able to juxtapose themes of darkness and despair with an appealing lightness of touch: she is also able to draw a character so cleanly and precisely that the reader finds themselves under Allie’s skin within the first few pages. For sure, it probably helps if, like me, you also work in the media, are a lesbian and are roughly the same age as the protagonist and I found myself transported back in time, not least in terms of the rise of the Scottish National Party and the bombing of the Pan Am jet over Lockerbie and its terrible and far-reaching aftermath.

McDermid, like Picasso, can capture the essence of a character in just a few strokes, with even the novel’s more cursory characters well rounded and entirely believable. The same applies to the sub-plots, so often bolted-on sketchy extras by less accomplished authors, rather than – as is the case here – being treated as an integral part of not only the plotting itself, but also the more general atmosphere of the work as a whole.

McDermid’s career began in journalism and I am forced to wonder how much of Allie is autobiographical, not least because Allie is a strong and determined gay women striving to succeed in a man’s world…and a heterosexual man at that! This is without doubt McDermid knows first hand. For sure, 1989 serves as a poignant reminder of how far we, as a community, have come in the past half century and the battles that have been fought by the giants who came before us.

But I do have one concern and that is, quite simply, the length of time we will be forced to wait before we can discover what happens to Allie in the 90s: bring on 1999!

DIVA magazine celebrates 28 years in print in 2022. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQIA media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable. 

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