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by Denise Mina
McArthur & Co, May 2011
352 pages
$24.95 CAD
ISBN: 155278911X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The novel opens in a decaying mansion in a quiet, upper-class suburb of Glasgow. Sarah Erroll, a young woman, living there alone since her mother's death, has her face stomped to pulp by a teenaged boy, one of a pair of students at a posh boarding school who have invaded her home. Senior police detective Alex Morrow, whom we first met in STILL MIDNIGHT, is called to the case and is deeply moved by the horrifying injuries sustained by the victim. The fact that Alexis is pregnant with twins and very large as a consequence may add something to her feeling of vulnerability.

When it is clear from the forensic evidence that two people were involved and that they were both wearing trainers, suspicion first falls on the sons of the woman, Kay, who cleaned for the dead woman and cared for her mother in her last months. It's a handy solution - the boys would have known about the house and its occupant and seen it as a target of opportunity. Maybe even the mother was part of the plot. But it all appears a bit more complicated when it transpires that Sarah had been working as an escort and large amounts of cash were secreted about the house.

At the same time, a millionaire banker, Lars Anderson, has hanged himself from a tree in his Kent garden, presumably to avoid going to jail as a result of his shady dealings. He may be well out of it, but he leaves behind his pill-addicted wife and two children, both of whom are seriously damaged. The family must face the cold reality that they will have to struggle along on a mere 300,000 a year. Kay's family could give them lessons - their annual income is far less than a tenth of that. As Alex digs deeper, it appears that the two cases may be connected.

At this point, all the elements of a fairly traditional police procedural are in place, and to a certain extent, that is what we get. But Denise Mina is less interested in catching the villains (we pretty much know who did what, if not why, from the beginning) than in the larger context in which the crime occurred. Alex Morrow is singularly well placed to provide that context.

Morrow is copper-in-the-middle here. She has tried to turn her back on her dodgy family connections - she is related to the McGrath family of Glaswegian criminals. She feels the weight of Kay's suspicion when she interviews her, a former schoolmate. Kay, in turn, has ample reason not to trust the police and makes no exception for Alex. Then there is Alex's pregnancy - extremely visible though she is only five months gone - and a constant reminder (should it happen to slip their minds) that she is, unlike the mostly male murder squad, female and thus an intruder into a world they have come to believe is theirs alone. Finally, Alex has been passed over for promotion in favour of the now universally-despised Bannerman, who reveals in his new post that he has risen above his level of competence. The squad is conspiring against him and invites Alex's cooperation, but she stays well clear of the politics.

What makes Denise Mina stand out even in the crowded field of excellent Scottish "Tartan Noir" crime novelists is the strength of the female perspective she brings to the work. This reveals itself in Morrow's character, which is a complex mix of assurance and self-doubt. It reveals itself in her secondary female characters as well, especially in this case Kay, who outwardly may conform to all the Tory stereotypes of the welfare mum but who in fact is a strong, brave, and self-confidently successful mother of three. And it especially reveals itself in the interaction among the various women characters, subtly observed and rooted in experience.

From the very beginning, in GARNETHILL, Denise Mina's work has broken new ground. Ian Rankin is quoted on the cover as calling her "the most exciting crime writer to have emerged in Britain for years." You could pretty much drop the word "crime" and still be right. A new Mina is not something you want to miss.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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