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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“Hey Marcel, I think your review is awful”: My 2014 in Book Reviews

10922461_10205789576805726_6206837516593422556_nSo in one of the few comments I get, it was pointed out that 5 years ago, I published a less than stellar review. So…that’s true. As I said in my autumn announcement, I was trying to rev up my reviewing last year. If you know this blog and all the time it’s been around, you may not have noticed the near coma it was in for a few years. Since my announcement I published a few reviews. None of them are close reading analyses, and similarly awful as the incriminated 2009 review. They just offer an opinion. It’s 10 reviews overall. which sounds like little, but in 2013 I merely put up 5 reviews and 2012 only 3. That means I wrote more last year than in the two previous years put together (it was 9 reviews in 2011, so more than that, too). Might not be a lot, but I’m mostly happy with this. Below is an overview of the books I reviewed.

I reviewed Damon Galgut’s debut called The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs. I am a fan of the writer. I think that shows in my review.

I reviewed Denise Mina’s crime novel Field of Blood, which is a more than solid entry in the genre, heightened by its perceptiveness of social and gender issues.

I reviewed Lawrence Norfolk’s most recent book John Saturnall’s Feast. Norfolk is one of my favorite writer and parts of the review ended up being a comment on his career so far, to contextualize my disappointment with what, really, is an excellent novel.

I reviewed Ilija Trojanow’s Global Warming novel EisTau. It hasn’t been translated yet but it should. It’s very good and should lend itself well to translations.

I reviewed Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a YA novel on suicide and mental illness. My review has a few rants on YA books as well as generally books on suicide.

I reviewed Jen Williams’s debut fantasy novel The Copper Promise, which is a more than solid entry in its genre. Great fun. The review doubles as a review of Wiebe and Upchurch’s first Rat Queens trade which is fantastic.

I reviewed John Irving’s most recent book In One Person. Irving is one of my favorite novelists. It shows in my review. Ron Charles calls Irving “America’s most uneven great writer”. He’s not wrong. In One Person, however, is one of his very best books.

I reviewed Joanna Rakoff’s memoir My Salinger Year, which is not a great read, but might be a good gift? This is the only pan I wrote this year.

I reviewed the first four trades of Jason Aaron’s Scalped. Aaron is very good. Scalped is very good. There are problems with it. I get a bit righteous about them towards the end.

As my final review of 2014 I reviewed Patrick Modiano’s debut novel La place de l’étoile, which doubles as an assessment of the 2014 Nobel Prize winner. I was very unhappy about that win, and I *might* have yelled about it on Twitter. In my review/comment I chose to emphasize what I like about his work.

Have a happy 2015.

Denise Mina: Field of Blood

Mina, Denise (2005), Field of Blood, Little, Brown
ISBN 0-316-15458-x

DSC_0197So when I said there would be shorter reviews as well as longer ones, I actually had this book in mind. Denise Mina’s crime procedural Field of Blood is a fairly straightforward crime novel set in Glasgow in 1981. I read it on one long train ride between two university libraries and I enjoyed it so much that I somehow started to take notes on it (I can’t tell you why that’s a sign of enjoyment for me, it just is). While I find the genre very entertaining, I don’t actually read mysteries a whole lot; I am nevertheless aware that there’s a specific Scottish tradition of that kind of writing, although most of those books, like the vast oeuvre of Ian Rankin, are set in Edinburgh. While the basic tradition is mostly dominated by brooding male detectives, whose inner demons make for excellent drama to supplement the murder mystery, there have been quite a few important female writers. I have to admit to not having read any British examples, but the American writers I’ve read are all really good, among them Laura Lippman and Sara Gran. I even enjoy the faux-British mediocrity of Elizabeth George. It’s not a huge coincidence that the first names that came to mind are American or English. In a recent review/interview with brilliant Scottish novelist Janice Galloway, the interviewer writes: “[a]lthough Scottish fiction can boast a line of hard men […] its hard women have been less visible”. Galloway herself points to the dearth of role models when she started out. This translates into mystery writing, but just as there’s now a whole series of female Scottish writers (my personal adoration of A.L. Kennedy’s work is well known), the field of female writers of crime novels has also greatly expanded.

And yet, amidst the growing competition, Mina’s book stands out. Field of Blood is many things at once: a mystery, a brisk psychological study of a young woman in a male dominated field, but it’s also a tentative discussion of the cultural background of 1980s (and 1960s) Glasgow. It may be a reviewer’s cliché to say that a book is many things at once, but as I’ll point out later, it’s a salient observation in this case; it contributes to the way we read and understand the book. Field of Blood is constructed with all the trappings of the genre, but the material is smartly dealt with. The novel is a bit strangely structured, and while you get a clean resolution, Mina has sidestepped the temptation of tying everything up in a clean knot. In novels like these, finding the killer usually means finding someone complicit in the social struggles depicted. Unraveling the case leads to an unraveling of a part of history or contemporary society that the author intends to examine. Massimo Carlotto’s fascinating investigative noirs are an example, or to stay in Scotland, the very good crime novels of Val McDermid. In Field of Blood, however, the murder case and the social issues are -in many ways- separated, allowing the writer to offer a resolution to the plot without a solution to the broader issues. The protagonist may be personally connected to the case, but that’s just a plot device. There are other connections too, some reaching into old criminal history. It’s just a really well executed intelligent crime novel with an overwhelming sense of place and time.

The place in question is Glasgow which gives the book a more working class background. Glasgow and Edinburgh have been rivals in Scotland for centuries. According to Robert Crawford’s book On Glasgow and Edinburgh, the latter is a more European kind of city, filled with old buildings, centered around the arts (and banking these days), while Glasgow is a city of heavy industry, the Scottish equivalent of the North of England. And like in Liverpool and Manchester, the thatcherite 1980s were no joy for working class Glaswegians. As heavy industry slowly lost its importance, and the Tory government cracked down on unions and workers, these communities suffered greatly. But Mina goes a bit further and situates her protagonist in an Irish Catholic community. Back in the 19th century, a huge amount of poor Irish fled to Scotland and most of them settled around Glasgow and Dundee. The UK has had a difficult relationship to Catholicism in general and with the Irish in particular and so it’s no small wonder that the Irish Catholics in Scotland were not especially welcome. In 1929, not that long ago, the Church of Scotland published a pamphlet titled “The Menace of the Irish race to our Scottish Nationality”; the division between Catholics and Protestants has been an impactful one for Scotland, a division that extends to their two big football clubs, Celtic Glasgow (Irish Catholic) and the Glasgow Rangers (Protestant). The misgivings of the broader protestant society and administration and the resulting insularity and defensiveness of Irish Catholic communities plays a large role in Field of Blood, which is as much about a young woman coming into her own as it’s about the murder of a small child at the hands of two slightly older children.

DSC_0199That last remark is not a spoiler. In fact, the book leads with the scene of the murder and presents us two boys, unequally complicit in a horrible crime. The question that needs to be answered by the plot is whether the boys did the heinous deed alone or whether they were made to do it or maybe enticed into doing it. And even though I called it a procedural at the beginning, it doesn’t focus on the police at all. Instead, the focal point is a female journalist called Paddy Meehan. Her real name is Patricia, but everybody calls her Paddy, which has two effects. It confirms the social/ethnic background, literally naming her (Paddy is a stereotypical Irish name), and it ties her to a different (not fictional) person with the same name. Patrick ‘Paddy’ Meehan was at the center of a miscarriage of justice debate in the 1970s. A Glaswegian Irish Catholic, he was framed for a murder he did not commit. It took seven years for him to be pardoned, even though, shortly after the trial, someone else came forward and confessed to the murder. In his later years, ‘Paddy’ Meehan came to believe that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union, and had been involved in a prison escape by a British double agent, none of which was ever proven to be true. Field of Blood incorporates a retelling of Meehan’s life story in alternating chapters. They offer an uneasy current of counter-history that undermines the legitimacy of stories told in the present tense of the novel.

The main task of Meehan’s life story is to show and remind Patricia/Paddy of the unreliability of the police, especially where minorities are concerned. If they had had no problems framing Paddy Meehan for a murder, would they flinch from framing two Irish Catholic boys in order to have a presentable result to a tragedy that outraged the public? However, Mina also tells us about Meehan’s life as a spy and she does this in a way that does not really inform the reader of the truth of the matter. The situations that she vouches for as an author are ambiguous, involving unseen locations, cells, blindfolds. Other, less ambiguous scenes are offered us through Paddy Meehan’s voice, a cracked, slightly off kilter kind of voice. She never really ties these memories/delusions of her protagonist’s innocently jailed namesake to the main narrative, leaving it in the book just as a queer disturbance of epistemological clarity. This is especially important since the mystery genre has a particular relationship to that idea (I went on about it in my reviews of brilliant novels by Pynchon, and childishly flat novels by Charles Stross), and while we are not following detectives or policemen around, a similar connotation follows investigative reporters.

Patricia/Paddy isn’t quite an investigative reporter, but her investigation of this story represents her first attempt at being one. Her struggles as a woman at a newspaper filled with men is made explicit, and represent a variation on a theme that readers and viewers are fairly familiar with. And while we can assume she is about to carve out a place for herself in this male dominated world, that is not the most interesting emancipation. As an Irish Catholic, she is also strongly involved in that community, almost imprisoned by it. With no sexual experience, she is engaged to be married to a young man from the same community. She lives with her parents (as he lives with his) and goes to church every Sunday. While we soon understand that this community is oppressive to her, we are not asked to condemn the closely knit web of families and friends. Denise Mina makes it clear that this is a supportive community, with a closeness born from necessity and poverty. There is none of the common pat judgment of somewhat insular religious communities. When Paddy appears to betray them by writing an article, the community turns against her. However, this shunning of Paddy inadvertently frees her long enough to see why she has not been happy following the community traditions and eventually allowing her to emancipate herself from the ties that bound her.

DSC_0198The portrayal of Irish Catholics in Fields of Blood is done in broad strokes, which makes sense, given that it happens in brief intervals during breaks in the mystery plot. At the same time, it is fairly complex, an effect that is achieved by the mosaic-like technique Mina uses in her novel. She throws out all these elements (and there are more, including body image struggles and sexuality) and hopes for the sense of place that permeates everything to make it all cohere. In a sense we are cast as detectives here, as well, connecting all the elements of the book in order to see the whole picture. Choosing a female protagonist allowed Mina to also present to us, like fellow Glaswegian novelists Galloway and Kennedy (part-time in her case) did before her, the experience of growing up female in working class Glasgow. The book is not on par with Galloway’s or Kennedy’s work, but it doesn’t aim for that kind of literary discourse. It’s literary goals are different and clear – and clearly met. There are other excellent books about female detectives that show how feminity is under pressure both by criminals as well as by the police apparatus. Alison Littlewood’s recent fairy tale/serial killer novel The Path of Needles is a very good example of this. As for Mina’s novel, it exceeds even those books. Sure, there are minor incongruities that have the effect of sometimes making the book read like somebody’s debut novel (it’s actually her third book), but they are fleeting. If you enjoy reading crime novels, this is the book for you.

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