Working in a newsroom was a different world in the 1970s. Just think about the Washington Post department heads who filled the conference room in All The President’s Men: white, middle-aged chaps with a narrow perspective.
If there were any women on the staff, they were generally typing their boss’s letters or bringing them coffee and faxes.
Even those who advanced in the profession had to negotiate the “fluffy” stuff, fashion features, royal trivia and toothsome toddlers.
Val McDermid knows this script because she lived through it when she was a young journalist on the Daily Record more than 40 years ago.
And she has brought her insights and forensic flair to the pages of her new book, 1979, set in the winter of discontent, where reporter Allie Burns is chasing her first major exclusive, and needs something explosive for the boys’ club to view her seriously.
Soon enough, she and her colleague, Danny Sullivan, are engaged in exposing the criminal underbelly of respectable Scotland.
But, in the process, they realise that they risk incurring the wrath of powerful enemies – and Allie won’t stop there.
When she discovers a home-grown terrorist threat, she devises an ingenious plan to infiltrate the group and enhance her reputation in her vocation.
But she recognises she is a woman in a man’s world – and putting a foot wrong could be fatal.
The novel, as you would expect from this virtuoso writer, features a string of memorable characters and Machiavellian plotting and is strikingly evocative of the days when laptops and personal computers were the stuff of science fiction.
It is the first of a series of five books which will propel the redoubtable heroine almost bang up to date in 2019 by the time the pentalogy is complete.
But what did Val make of these early days at the start of her writing career?
She recalled: “At the start, they didn’t really know what to do with me. It was a guy’s world, there were only three women on the news desk and the managers didn’t allow us to work together because they thought we would just spend our time gossiping.
“That was one of the first things I noticed. When women were in conversation, it was always gossip. But when the men talked about football, that was okay.
“I soon realised that you had to be as good as, if not better, than everybody else just to stay in the job.
“And, of course, there was plenty of the fluffy stuff being shoved my way.
“Heaven knows how many times I covered the biggest bouncing baby story in any particular month – and then you had to deal with the attitude: ‘We can’t let a wee lassie go out on the streets of Glasgow at night’.
“But I persevered, I enjoyed being on the nightshift and covering important stories and things gradually started getting better. And I hope that will be reflected as the books move forward to 1980 and 1999.
“Back then, there were still some jobs which were regarded as gung-ho and only for the boys, such as foreign correspondents.
“But nowadays, you switch on your TV and see people such as Lindsey Hilsum (international editor for Channel 4 News) and Lyse Doucet (the BBC’s chief international correspondent) and you can recognise that progress has been made.”
The pages of 1979 will resonate with anybody who watched Life On Mars or recalls the slap-first-ask-questions-later philosophy of The Sweeney.
The drama zips along at a furious pace, but the author does more than just generate thrills and frissons.
As she said: “Allie Burns will appear in all the books, and I am already carrying out research on 1989, but this series isn’t simply about crime, but looking at the changes there have been in technology, fashion, music, detection, food and the things we eat.
“I mean, I can look back and remember when steak Diane used to be the most exotic thing on a restaurant menu. If you could afford that, then you were doing well.”
At one stage of her career, Val found herself in Manchester, sitting in her car staking out a Coronation Street star at 6am and told herself: “This is no way to earn a living.”
But these experiences gradually taught her several important lessons.
Firstly, why intrude into the lives of real human beings who don’t deserve to be pilloried when you can bring their fictional counterparts to life in the pages of your novels?
After all, this proud Fifer with a passion for the sea possessed a sufficiently fertile imagination, fastidious work ethic and driven determination to create truly believable, multi-layered characters who struck a chord with readers.
And she has succeeded to the extent she is now almost universally described as the “Queen of Crime”.
Which is why she will be involved with two different television series in 2022.
Val is no stranger to such ventures and Wire in the Blood, with Robson Green and Hermione Norris, ran for six series from 2002 until 2008.
But she seemed delighted to talk about how Lauren Lyle will star as DCI Karen Pirie in her acclaimed novel, The Distant Echo.
The Outlander actor is bringing Pirie, the fearless Scottish investigator with a quick mouth and tenacious desire for the truth, to the screen for the first time, and filming has taken place on the streets of St Andrews, which features heavily in the book.
In the first episode, the detective is tasked with reopening a historical murder investigation that has been the subject of a provocative true crime podcast.
And although McDermid has only seen a small part of the ITV/STV production, it’s obvious she is thrilled at the prospect of it being broadcast next year.
She said: “It is always exciting to see a project such as Karen Pirie leaving the page and being brought to the screen.
“We have been fortunate in securing a very talented and enthusiastic cast to bring The Distant Echo to life, and shooting in Scotland definitely provided added eye-candy.
“The fact that it is being shown as a six-part series means there will really be the chance for proper story-telling.
“I am one of the executive producers and I have seen how the production has moved forward, despite the pandemic, so I hope people enjoy it and it brings some viewers back to the original books.
“It will be shown in 2022, as will the second series of Traces, which was filmed in Dundee (and starred the likes of Laura Fraser, Molly Windsor, Martin Compston and John Gordon Sinclair).
“This isn’t from a book, but it is about the reality of forensic medicine and I think we were all delighted with the reception the first series got.
“It’s a very busy period and that suits me, because I am always excited by new challenges.
“I’ve also written a radio play and I’m at the point where people are coming to me with suggestions, which is a good place to be.
“The focus for now is on 1979 – you never know when you launch a new series whether it will be a success – and the next few weeks will be interesting.
“But I’ve found myself looking at the role of the media, then and now, and I think it’s more important than ever to be balanced, to convey what is happening in the world, and reflect all different views of gender, colour and class.
“I wanted to be taken seriously when I began (at The Record). I still do.”
There was just time for a quick question to Val – a devoted Raith Rovers supporter who has a stand named after her at Starks Park – about the remarkable match a few weeks ago when her team led Hamilton Accies 4-0, only for the contest to finish 4-4.
The pain in her voice was unmistakable. She was there and witnessed the collapse for herself. Yet she did provide a summation of which Archie Macpherson would be proud.
Cue! “There was 63 minutes of scintillating football. And then, there was 27 minutes of guys running around as if they had just met one another in a pub car park.”
- 1979 is published by Little Brown. Val McDermid will be talking about it at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Thursday August 19 at 2.30pm. Visit edbookfest.co.uk for more details.