Beyond good and evil
Denise Mina is an unconventional crime writer, who doesn't believe in bad people. She helps Doug Johnstone with his inquiries
Sunday 15 May 2011
She is not your typical crime writer.
Despite Denise Mina's books being packaged and marketed like standard police procedurals, they are full of subverted stereotypes, favour deep characterisation over plot, and often give away whodunit early on in proceedings. In fact, it wasn't until Mina's eighth book that she even wrote from the point of view of a police officer, and even then she shied away from making her female detective the focus of the story.
And that refreshingly unconventional approach continues with Mina's ninth novel, The End of the Wasp Season. It is her second book to feature DS Alex Morrow, now heavily pregnant with twins, who is called in to investigate the savage murder of a young woman in a wealthy suburb of Glasgow. At the same time, a millionaire banker hangs himself in his Kent home, and the two threads are eventually intertwined through four deftly written and acutely observed narratives that stretch across all strata of society.
"With my earlier books, I got quite bored being with one protagonist all the way through," Mina says. "With the Alex Morrow books, I wanted to do something a bit more holistic, so there were lots of different points of view, and I wanted to look at aspects of crime that you don't tend to look at." She gives a self-effacing little laugh and adds: "I'm trying to make it sound like I knew what I was doing, but it wasn't like that." But she's being slightly disingenuous, given the accomplished nature of her work.
We're sitting in the sunny kitchen of her swish Glasgow home, surrounded by the clutter of family life – Mina is married and has two young sons. She laughs and takes the mickey out of herself a lot, but there's also a confident, steely quality that suggests she doesn't suffer fools gladly. She looks younger than her 44 years despite spiky grey hair, and has a mischievous sparkle in her eye.
"I'm not much of a plotter," she says of her writing process. "I start off with an inciting incident, and in classic crime fiction what happens is that all the action flows from that incident. It's very comfy when it all ties up and feels like a complete universe, but my stuff doesn't always work that way." Mina then confesses that the original version of the new novel she submitted to her publishers "really fell apart at the end" and required substantial rewrites. I mention that her readers might be surprised that, nine novels in, she's still accepting a heavy editorial hand.
"I always say 'Please edit me', because I don't want to write those big, flabby books where the writer's making loads of money and nobody wants to tell them that it's crap," she laughs. "You know who I'm talking about. You have to take your ego out of it and say, do I want people to be obsequious to me or do I want to write good books? If it's the latter, you have to take criticism. It's annoying, but that's how to do good stuff, listen to other people."
The results are impressive. The End of the Wasp Season is a complex and involved piece of writing which looks at the personal fallout from the banking crisis as well as the dehumanisation of victims in an increasingly divided society. "This book started as an attempt to humanise a sex worker," Mina says. "Because one thing I really hate about conventional crime fiction is that sex workers are often used as a trope and it's assumed the reader doesn't identify with them."
There are no conventional "baddies" in Mina's work, in fact Mina doesn't believe in the idea of bad people at all. "My partner's a forensic psychologist and works with teenage sex offenders, and if you thought they were simply 'bad people', you wouldn't try to do anything to help," she says. "Even if people do wrong, we're social animals, so what can we do about stopping them doing the same things in future? Saying people are 'bad' or 'evil' is just an unwillingness to engage; an unwillingness to try to empathise. That sanctimonious attitude doesn't help anyone."
This idea is one that runs through all of Mina's work, which encompasses the crime novels, a number of acclaimed comics and graphic novels, as well as several plays and numerous short stories. It all started in 1998 with Garnethill, which won the Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger award for best debut crime novel. That book, and the two that followed, focused on the social worker Maureen O'Donnell and the female victims of abuse that she encountered.
Mina's next series of books began with 2004's The Field of Blood, and featured a young, aspiring journalist, Paddy Mehan (another female protagonist), who becomes personally involved with a horrific child murder that her newspaper is covering. BBC Scotland recently made an accomplished two-part adaptation of The Field of Blood starring David Morrissey and Peter Capaldi, due to be aired later this summer.
In fact, Mina's stock has never been higher with film and television producers, and she's preparing for a raft of meetings in London to discuss a variety of projects, both adaptations and original work."[The acclaimed Danish crime series] The Killing has been amazing for me," she laughs, "because people are writing to me out of the blue, saying that they want female protagonists and would I be interested in developing an idea?" She shakes her head at the idea that something she's been doing for 13 years is suddenly in vogue. "Och, nothing will come of it," she says. "In television, if you think something is going to happen, it never works that way. It's always the most unlikely, leftfield thing that actually works."
The same could be said of Mina's own writing, of course.
The End of the Wasp Season, By Denise Mina (Orion £12.99
'Her mind slid softly into the dark warm. A sudden crack of floorboard at the bottom of the stairs. Her eyes snapped open. She raised her head from the pillow, the better to hear. A shoe scuffing over carpet, amplified by the stairwell and a hissed two-word instruction.A high voice. A woman's voice. "Go on."'
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