Mina, Denise (2021), Rizzio, Polygon
ISBN 9-781 1534-314405
As I may have pointed out in previous reviews: I am a great admirer of the work of Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina. Unlike many other writers in her genre, her work is animated by a creative unrest – an impatience with seriality and the form of the typical mystery novel. She has started three different series of novels, centered on the police, on reporters and on a personal investigator. In parallel, she wrote a series of standalone novels, some of which, like the celebrated The Long Drop, are historical true crime novels.
I have not written new reviews here in a while, and several new novels came and went in the meantime; I have copious notes on The Long Drop in particular, which is a deeply admirable book, in the way it connects Mina’s well-established sense of place and local and social connections, with a sharp recreation of a historical crime. There is a curious contrast between Mina’s approach to true crime and the work of a writer like Helen Garner, whose books, while also very good, deal more in the individual psychology of crime, which, when applied to real people, always has a bit of a haut gout.
And another thing happened in this break – I read my first Denise Mina novel which is bad. Though I say “bad” – Conviction is among her best reviewed books. For me, nothing came together in this attempt to fuse diverse kinds of storytelling – adventure, crime, storytelling, and…podcasts? The central animating device of Conviction is the attempt to solve a crime while simultaneously recording a podcast about it. Very Only Murders in The Building, you say? Accurate, but at the same time, satire isn’t Mina’s strong suit, and her strengths in connecting and grounding violence in characters and places are at odds with the basic satire the book revolves around. The book reads like it was fun to write and it is entertaining enough to read, but some of Mina’s novels belong among the best novels in their genre and that’s just a very high bar to clear.
Rizzio, however, very easily clears that bar. This very short novel deals with an episode in the life of Mary Queen of Scots. It was published as the first entry in the “Darkland Tales” books, where Scottish writers reimagine Scottish history in fiction. The next entry was Jenni Fagan’s Hex, which is also excellent, and in Autumn 2022, Alan Warner (whose Morvern Callar is one of the best Scottish novels of the 20th century) will follow. Jenni Fagan’s novel(la) retells the North Berwick witch trials – focusing on one particularly famous historical figure and contextualizing it in a feminist reading of history. And it makes sense to write a book about transient everyday figures who are frequently forgotten by history, or whose memory is slighted by the broader strokes of history. Books focusing on these characters often provide genuine insight into the structure of historiography and the way power moves and shakes narratives.
There’s also a certain freedom in these books, unburdened by the weight of libraries of literature expended on characters and events. This does not mean that writers generally just invent things. Margaret Atwood’s best novel, Alias Grace, is an examination of a 19th century murder, written to correct the historical record established by a contemporary account. Similarly, Denise Mina’s own The Long Drop is scrupulously detailed and does not draw its strength from invention, but from re-contextualization of violence. The book ends on a description of the way Glasgow has entirely changed since then: “the city is reborn so completely that it becomes a memory of a memory of a place.”
Rizzio is a condensed little book about the 1566 murder of David Rizzio by a conspiracy intent on ending Mary’s reign as queen. And while the initial plot was not successful beyond the actual murder of Rizzio, an Italian courtier and secretary of Queen Mary, in short order Mary was in fact deposed, and imprisoned, first in Scotland, and later in England. These are all famous characters. David Rizzio’s murder has been depicted in numerous books and movies, and the list of texts dealing with the reign of Queen Mary is truly endless. In some way, the shape of public narratives of Queen Mary, from Walter Scott, through Antonia Fraser and to Denise Mina is a full history of the way British literature has changed. There’s nothing of substance you could add to the story, no secret psychological explanation, no twist, no uncovered conspiracy.
And Mina does not attempt to do so – she explains her method to the reader by way of a prefatory quote from Borges:
“The exercises in narrative prose that make up this book overly exploit certain tricks: random enumerations, sudden shifts of continuity, and the paring down of a man’s whole life to two or three scenes. They are not, they do try not to be, psychological.”
As I mentioned before – this eschewing of psychology is something that Mina has done before in her true crime fiction. What’s new is the playfulness of arranging scenes and chronology. Stylistically, this book also reads more like her true crime fiction – for these books, Mina has pared down her style, jettisoned superfluous descriptors, and offers us plain declarative sentences. Short sentences, with a minimum of hypotactical flourishes, just telling us what happens, who is doing what. The chapters are short, the scenes are set with extraordinary effectiveness. The nimble clarity of Mina’s writing in Rizzio almost reads like an exercise, meant to demonstrate mastery of a certain style.
The plot of the book does not deviate from the known story of Rizzio’s murder – but Mina is not interested, contrary to what might be expected, in Mary’s reactions to the events, at least not primarily. Mary, who is surprised by the plot, which involved her craven husband, flees, but otherwise does not have a hand in the events, which are primarily shaped by the push and pull of people who are interested in power, but not interested in the opinion of the woman who currently holds it. “These are the men who fill history books with their squabbles and claims and resentments. The Great Men of History.” And while the events of the book precipitate and contribute to the fall, imprisonment and eventual death of Mary Queen of Scots, the plot itself fails – these men, as Mina notes have not changed history, even though they are convinced of it, as events unfold.
And while I noted that there is a contrast between the story of The Long Drop, after all, just the story of a serial killer whose murders became part of urban legend, and Rizzio, the story of one of the most famous characters in all of British history, in terms of how well represented each story is in historiography, the two books end on a similar note. After Mary fled, her rooms in Holyrood were first closed and then abandoned to the point where there are no authentic objects in these rooms that Mary personally interacted with, only objects which are “traditionally associated” with Mary. The way even famous, unquestionably important and powerful historical figures can be subject to the flotsam and jetsam of history, when they are female, is remarkable and deplorable.
Rizzio is a short book about the violence of misogyny in both history and historiography. And somehow, in these few pages, Mina also manages to tell the stories of people entirely lost to history, of the everyday folk who are moved on the board to plan or escape plots. This is one of the least flawed books I have read in a long time, which manages to offer both depth and brevity, clarity of observation and breadth of vision. If you have not read Denise Mina’s work yet, maybe this is the time to do so.