A Glasgow kiss for legal lads

Denise Mina swapped crime fact for crime fiction, but the tough truth of women's lives still inspires her
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The Independent Culture

It was while talking to friends one day that the crime writer Denise Mina realised she wasn't cut out for an academic career. "I had told my first-year tutorial group that if you put cocaine on an erection it stays hard for ages," explains the Glasgow-based novelist, shrieking at the recollection. "I thought I was being really clever, introducing the students to the idea that a woman could rape a man - that a hard-on doesn't mean you consent to all sexual activity." In fact, her students looked stunned and her friends fell silent. "They thought I could get arrested for telling 17-year olds things like that."

It was while talking to friends one day that the crime writer Denise Mina realised she wasn't cut out for an academic career. "I had told my first-year tutorial group that if you put cocaine on an erection it stays hard for ages," explains the Glasgow-based novelist, shrieking at the recollection. "I thought I was being really clever, introducing the students to the idea that a woman could rape a man - that a hard-on doesn't mean you consent to all sexual activity." In fact, her students looked stunned and her friends fell silent. "They thought I could get arrested for telling 17-year olds things like that."

Smile she might, given that this interest in attention-grabbing criminality has lifted her from a university law department to the more rewarding milieu of successful crime fiction. Her first novel, Garnethill, both sold well and won Mina the John Creasey Gold Dagger Award for the best crime debut of 1998 (she is one of the judges for this year's prize). It was snapped up by BBC Scotland for a three-part series which goes into production in January. Ian Rankin, a fellow member of the Scottish crime-writing set dubbed "Tartan Noir", has described Denise Mina as "one of the most exciting writers to have emerged in Britain for years".

Though conversation with the 33-year old is inevitably peppered with signs of her recent success - she has bought a four-bedroomed house, including the bedsit in which she used to live, in Glasgow's desirable West End - it is marked too by pragmatism and a touch of self-deprecation. So little money did she and her mother have at times, she recalls, they would spend evenings dreaming up get-rich-quick schemes. "I can't believe this one has worked," she adds, with a Cheshire cat of a grin. She wrote the screenplay for the TV adaptation too. "It was shite and they rejected it," Mina admits, still grinning.

Her second novel, Exile, is published this week (Bantam Press, £9.99). It is the middle of a trilogy that focuses on a "real and flawed and rounded" female characte, Maureen O'Donnell, caught up in a tangle of crime and dysfunction in her own life and in those around her. In the first book, she tries to solve the puzzle of her boyfriend's murder. In Exile, she travels to London (hence the title) in search of the killer of Ann Harris, a battered woman whose body is washed up by the Thames.

O'Donnell takes with her a complex background, including a breakdown, time in a psychiatric hospital triggered by memories of her father's sexual abuse of her, and an alcoholic mother. "She's not lucky, is she?" is how Mina sums up her protagonist.

The reasons for the complexity of her central character go back to that ill-fated spell in academia, and specifically to her PhD research on mental illness and female offenders. As well as wanting to write, she says, "for women of my age who live where I live, and something they would want to read", Mina also wanted to tackle pernicious gender stereotypes in legal proceedings.

"Women are labelled mentally ill through the criminal justice system in different ways from men. When women are deemed 'mad' it takes all their agency away; it means she can never have meant to do anything, whereas a man might still have rationality. This all ties in with the idea of women being passive - which is a stereotype the courts preserve very strongly. I wanted to have a female detective who... had to be proactive and have agency and make moral decisions, though she has a history of mental illness."

Away from her academic interests, she is just as sharp on social inequalities - the "sanitised" debate about poverty we now have, and the burden many women still live under. "At some point, most women think they are suffering from some kind of mental illness. They think 'am I going mad? Why can't I have a full-time job, bring up the children, do the housework, earn less than men and find it all a fulfilling experience?'"

It's this agenda that distinguishes Mina from much of the rest of the crime-writing pack, and shapes her novels' social conscience. "I've got a law degree," she says by way of explanation. "I just can't write Len Deighton. But, just the same, what I like about crime fiction is that nobody's intimidated by it - nobody would ever not read it, thinking it was above them."

None of this means that her fiction eschews plot for politics, or pace for polemic. Though she takes in poverty, injustice and violence against women along the way, she writes tightly-plotted thrillers about the seamy side of city life from the point of view of a thirtysomething woman a world away from the vapid excesses of Chick Lit. Sticking close in one aspect to the conventions of crime novels, O'Donnell drinks whisky rather than unoaked Chardonnay.

I suspect Mina is somewhere in between, maybe because of her cosmopolitan background. Thanks to her father's job as an engineer for an oil company, she moved 21 times in 18 years. Attending schools in Paris, Amsterdam, Norway, Kent and various towns in Scotland, she learned some things fast, caught up on others later. "My sister and I are brilliant at entrances," says Mina. "We can walk into any room, anytime, anywhere and make friends immediately. We just can't sustain relationships. We both had to learn as adults that you can fall out with people without cutting them out of your life, as that's what we would always do, thinking we'd never see them again anyway."

Her early career days were as almost as eventful as the family's travels. She worked in a meat factory, then in geriatric and terminal nursing homes, before taking a law degree at Glasgow University. She got a grant for a PhD, taught criminology and criinal law, and published articles on the medicalisation of deviant women. She gave up the PhD after a year, using months of her grant to live as she was writing Garnethill. And she wrote two pocket guides, on men and flirting. "Oh, those were years ago!" she wails, hoping they will never turn up to haunt her. Maureen O' Donnell would love to have such kitsch skeletons in her cupboard.

Mina is currently 20 pages into the final instalment of the O'Donnell trilogy, to be called Resolution. Her next book is a one-off novel inspired by the James Bulger case. It would be unlike her to choose any less thought-provoking issue, though as ever it will be in her highly readable, hugely popular style. "Yeah, my fan mail says it all. I got a postcard the other day, a Paula Rego portrait of Germaine Greer with an Amnesty sticker on it. I thought, that's me: burning social conscience in Surbiton." And in Garnethill, a district of Glasgow. Not many writers can be both, and a gripping read at the same time.

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