Denise Mina: Rizzo

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.

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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