Denise Mina: Still Midnight

Mina, Denise (2009), Still Midnight, Orion
ISBN 978-0-7528-8404-2

This is the second novel by Mina I’ve read (I’ve reviewed Field of Blood here) and it is just as good, probably slightly better than the other one. Denise Mina has a rare skill for writing a crime novel that even while following most of the rules and expectations of the genre, always feels enormously grounded in a sense of place and community. Mina’s first novel was set in a poor and restrictive Catholic environment, and this novel is set at the fringes of another religious community in Glasgow: Muslims. Mina never succumbs to the temptation of making this a novel that separates “us” from “them” – detectives entering some foreign culture. Much as in the other book, Mina’s protagonist is related (though here strictly speaking not part) of the community, having a sense of how crime functions not from a place of power, but from personal experience. There is a healthy dose of Simenon in this book, for the way Mina treats the process of understanding, and violence. And, I suppose, the influence of Nordic noir makes itself felt in many of the book’s mechanisms, as well. The novel is less historically anchored and buffeted than the other one, giving it more of a local, isolated bleakness rather than a sense of the injustices of history. You can see the conclusion coming a mile away, but then, this is not the kind of mystery where you race towards the end, trying to follow an author’s trail of clues. This is more of a slow affair, as we are getting acquainted with a person, her idiocrasies and her place in her community. These are all reasons why this is a lovely crime novel, but what makes this book really stand out is Mina’s writing. Field of Blood was well written, but Mina’s only gotten better with time. There are curious metaphors nestled all over the book and while the author mostly stays on the well-trod paths of genre writing (a lot of people say things “quietly,” there’s a lot of grinning and smiling as means to keep dialogue glued together, too), she succeeds at making her book surprising – not in terms of plot, per se, but actually on the page. And there’s not many mysteries that you can say this about. The appeal of Still Midnight is more narrow than the appeal of Field of Blood; if you don’t like police procedurals, you won’t like this. But if you do have an appreciation for the genre, however slight, this is a strong recommendation.

One of the most interesting things Denise Mina does in her work, and that’s something that carried over from Field of Blood, is her take on masculine assumptions. Police procedurals always have an unpleasantly male touch, and women tend to be the victims (or murderers) in them. It’s for men to divine the killer and make order in the world. The basic structure of the detective novel – to find out how this world works, what the connections are and the like – is a good fit for the delusions of rationality that are so common in conceptions of masculinity, particularly coming from men. You often don’t have a choice – you can only choose between different kinds of men. And this is not gendered regarding writers. Women get in on the action too. Elizabeth George’s American English countryside does contain a female detective, but she’s subservient to a male detective, who is often more careful, rational and elegant than his female colleague. Fred Vargas writes lovely male detectives, often sensitive, interesting ones, but her Adamsberg basically has a woman he’s romantically interested in under constant surveillance in Dans Les Bois Éternels, and that’s not atypical. There are of course several exceptions, but the two most popular ones, the female investigators in the novels of Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell (who I personally find completely unreadable, I cannot read more than 10 pages in a row of without despair), are not actually detectives, but anthropologists and medical examiners. I’m sure this is not an accident. The violence inherent in being a policemen, the way you partake in oppression is more of a comfortable fit with male protagonists, who are, after all, socialized to do that anyway. Denise Mina’s decisions in her book, regarding this situation, are curious and interesting. Her detective, DS Alex Morrow, is also, in this case, an assistant to a male detective, but he’s incompetent, haughty, anxious and paranoid about looking bad. Mina shows, explicitly, that being a man, it is easier for him to sell mediocre results as brilliance, and to steal from the work of others, decline to credit them, and make his way up the ladder. The man in this case (his name is Bannerman, make of that what you will) is unlucky, because DS Morrow is assigned to help him, and, sometimes without trying, she keeps showing him up. How? By being more of a typical detective than he is. In a way, Mina employs the genre markers both of the police procedural and of the noir detective novel and combines them. In the former, the police are practically on Starship Enterprise, visiting strange cultures and making sense of them. In the latter, the detective is part of the seedy parts of town, and is threatened and affected by them.

She uses both, but makes the limitations of the former as compared to the latter, clear. The most compelling part of the novel, however, has nothing to do with policework and even Mina’s protagonist is only marginally part of this: Still Midnight is a book about community. One of the text that I found most impressive in this year’s Bachmannpreis-Competition (see here) was a short story that took the cliché of the person from another culture that has to be understood, and flipped it on its ear, showing how class pressures are things we all share, and that if we look at people as being fundamentally like us, we have a better chance of understanding and communicating with them. The same is true in Mina’s novel: a crime has happened in a Muslim household. That crime is best understood if you look at the way crime works in Glasgow rather than work with terms relating to Muslims and Islam. Everybody in the novel is, first and foremost, a Glaswegian. Glasgow is a working class town, where economic pressure grinds everybody into the same fine powder. Whereas the closest Glaswegian relative for Field of Blood was Meg Henderson’s brilliant memoir Finding Peggy, in the case of Still Midnight, it is none other than No Mean City, the classic account of crime and poverty in Glasgow, which is no mean feat. The most frustrating element of the whole novel is how effortless it reads. There are infelicities and frustrating oddnesses, and maybe the night shouldn’t be described as “black as ink” more than once, but the book reads light, skilled and playful in the best way. In taking up a motif from her debut novel Garnethill, Mina has a protagonist whose brother is part of the Glaswegian crime scene, who knows members of various communities, including a club of young Muslim men, from school, and who is fiercely intelligent. Everything connects in her novel, everything coheres, and it’s gratifying to know there’s so much more where this comes from. Denise Mina is a special writer. Read this book (if you like police procedurals).

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Ed McBain – Cop Hater

McBain, Ed (1956, 2003), Cop Hater, Orion
ISBN 978-0752857916

DSC_1300So this is another brief review, like this one – and for similar reasons. There’s really only one reason I read this book in the first place: I was familiar with the author’s name, and when this book turned up on an otherwise mostly literary list of “1000 (or so) books you should read”, I was puzzled and intrigued enough to give this one a spin. Primarily because of its interesting title and the fact that it’s the first of Ed McBain’s series of novels set in a (fictionalized) New York precinct. Let me just get this out of the way: it’s not great. If you are looking for a crime writing gem, using sparse but exquisite language to sculpt an exciting plot, go to the hardboiled classics. Or to this book. Or if you want a less well known one, try Richard Hugo’s only novel. But don’t read Cop Hater. I will say this, without having read his work, I am fairly sure that McBain gets better later in his career (after all, he wrote, among other things, the script for The Birds). Cop Hater is his first attempt at a kind of writing that was fairly new at the time. Do read Cop Hater if you are interested in an example of very early procedural police novel where not one mustachioed detective or elderly lady come up with the murderer after 200 pages of careful rumination (or in the case of Elizabeth George, 500+ pages), but where the detection is the result of a whole precinct’s carefully detailed police work. Throughout the whole book you can see the author grappling with various parts of the concept, putting elements in place, elements that we now know from a plethora of TV series and novels. It also shows some of the less pleasant elements underlying that genre. As a pioneer work, it’s certainly worth your time. It’s not exciting or well written -but it’s interesting.

 

First things first, there will be spoilers. One, because one thing that’s interesting about the book is the title, and it ties directly into the identity of the murderer, and two, because at no point are we really excited to find out who the murderer is. The book acts like that’s the case, but McBain at that point in his career hasn’t really learned how to let clues pile up, build up excitement or anything. His vast and prolific work in other genres has not prepared him for this. And I can’t help but feel as if the author is fully aware of this. Like me, his interest seems mostly to toy with the title and its implications, a case bolstered by the fact that the film poster to the 1958 movie version gives away the ending straight away. When Cop Hater was published in 1956, Ed McBain had already published about 10 novels under various pseudonyms and names. Born Salvatore Albert Lombino, he changed his name in 1952 on an editor’s advice to Evan Hunter. Ed McBain is one of Hunter’s numerous noms de plume (including Hunt Collins, Curt Cannon, Dean Hudson, Richard Marsten, Ezra Hannon and John Abbott), but clearly by far the most successful one. In the foreword to my edition, McBain explains how eventually, writing his 87th precinct novels took only about a month, but that Cop Hater took much longer, in part because of his research. Limiting his plots to the geographic realities of New York City, he created a fictional New York (Isola) that’s both similar and unlike the real thing. Closer to the actual New York than Gotham, and further from the actual New York than David Simon’s work is from the actual Baltimore. According to the foreword he kept talking to and calling the police to add accuracy to his writing.

 

220px-Cop_Hater_posterGiven McBain/Hunter’s background in speculative fiction, it’s understandable that he tried to overcorrect his fabulist tendencies. The effect on the book is interesting: there is a lot of dialogue and characterizations that appear to be the result of careful (if distorting) observations, but occasionally, McBain throws an infodump at us that is really odd. It’s like watching CSI-type stories learning to walk when McBain has a character offer a disquisition on how lab technicians can figure out a blood type, or how they can figure out from the type of someone’s hair whether they are children, teenagers or adults. There’s even a little table on the latter fact. Problem is: no one in the book asked for these facts. And not only that, but there are characters saying “why are you telling me this, it’s an irrelevant information.” Today’s reader can see the roots of CSI in this scientifically framed and expressed information, but what about McBain’s contemporaries? Given McBain’s meteoric success, it’s hard not to believe that they found it interesting, that it added to the overall vraisemblance of the writing. That’s probably what it was intended to do. The dialogue shows that McBain is aware of the potentially annoying nature of the information, but his goal is to create a believable, real, blood and guts police precinct that people could believe is in a real New York borough. He is, to repeat what I said earlier, not particularly, at this point, interested in building a consistent case with suspects, leads and developments. The murderer in question is caught, but that’s mostly because he more or less presents himself to the lead detective on the case, voluntarily, surprisingly, murder weapon, motivation and a co-conspirator in tow. It had nothing to do with everyone’s initial suspicion, but it’s that suspicion that lends form to the whole book. The closest we get to a lead on the real suspect is the lead detective’s intuition that basically just says (and I paraphrase): “maybe we’re wrong and it’s someone completely different?”

 

The murder(s) in question were two successive murders of police officers, with a third following later. Clearly, the murderer must have been a cop hater. But that doesn’t narrow down the list of suspects. As a detective explains early on: “This whole goddamn city is full of cop haters. You think anybody respects a cop? Symbol of law and order, crap!” This is not an insult, this is a sense of frustration and entitlement, a toxic cocktail that has only recently boiled up again in cases all over the US. And following the detectives through their work, it’s not hard to see why someone might “hate” them. A decade before the Supreme Court decided the “Miranda” case, we find the police in fine form, pressuring, bullying and attacking mostly innocent citizens. They are shown to be at least mildly corrupt, and they are not above wishing death on the press and gang members. And yet the author sides with them, using dismissive irony when discussing press coverage that stresses these very problems. Sure there are cops that go too far, but these, the author assures us, are not well-liked by other cops either, and plus, some goons jumped them so you’ll have to understand their preference for beating up prisoners. If you are at all wondering why the American police has been doing what they’ve been doing, it’s not easy (or pleasant) to imagine the 87th precinct as depicted in Cop Hater and equip them with the freedom to do whatever, and military-grade equipment. It’s interesting that in their search for a cop hater, the police talks to people that have been previously imprisoned or terrorized by the police. The way the system is structured becomes quickly apparent. But Cop Hater goes even beyond an examination of that bias. It also offers us the broader way that the police is integrated into the larger world of restriction and punishment.

 

The most relevant study of what McBain is doing here is probably The Novel and the Police by D.A. Miller a study on 19th century detective fiction that is really really good. Most relevant here is Miller’s assertion that “a policing power is inscribed in the ordinary practices and institutions of the world from the start” (talking about Wilkie Collins). While there is a police here, the border between police work and the policing in every day practices is very flimsy. The murder ends up being the brainchild of a woman, who convinced some brute to do her dirty work for her. Now, this woman is odd from the beginning. She is first shown us as a sexpot who does not offer her husband the sex he craves. In fact she teases him and turns him away. Strike One. Then she dresses slightly provocative at a funeral, enough to get a detective to have dirty thoughts. Strike Two. Finally, she transformed an apartment into some feminine nightmare that a manly police officer cannot possibly want to live in. It’s enough to terrify the lead detective on the case. His encounter with the woman ends thusly: “He was beginning to feel a little more comfortable with Alice. Maybe she wasn’t so female, after all.” – But of course she is very female. Strike Three. All these indications are not of course, real indications of crimes being committed, they are simple misogyny in action. However, the book uses the reader’s bigoted disapproval of nonstandard (submissive) female behavior in order to build a case against Alice that runs parallel to the police precinct’s borderline competent work. And when we finally see who did it, the book allows to quietly let these elements fall into place. In fact, Cop Hater even offers us a “good woman” in contrast: a woman who is literally unable to speak, who has no will of her own, who exists to love her boyfriend and be self conscious about her own shortcomings.

 

So, it really is an interesting read but the writing is horrific and all the learning and stumbling upon developing this modern genre can grate on the reader. Plus, the awful misogyny, while throwing a light on the “roman-police” as D.A. Miller termed it, is not necessarily pleasant to read, especially since the author does nothing to undercut it. If you have a historical interest in this, go for it. It’s short and despite the writing does read quickly. Would I read it again if I had the choice? Probably not.

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