Denise Mina: The inside track on an outsider
Her novels don't sit easily in the crime fiction mainstream – and, whatever you do, says Doug Johnstone, don't ask her for a testimonial
Sunday 28 July 2013
It's almost exactly two years since I last sat at Denise Mina's kitchen table in Glasgow and gabbed with her about her life for an interview. A lot has happened in those two years.
Back then we were discussing The End of the Wasp Season, her second novel to feature the cop Alex Morrow, a book that went on to win the prestigious Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, as well as a number of international awards. Her next book, Gods and Beasts, recently repeated that Theakstons win – an unprecedented two in a row.
Meanwhile the BBC turned her novel Field of Blood into a fantastic two-part drama, and they have a second adaptation airing later this month. The Alex Morrow novels are in development for television, and there have been offers from Hollywood for the rights to adapt other books.
On top of all that, Mina has been working on a graphic novel adaptation of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy", running to four thick comic books interpreting the adventures of Lisbeth Salander.
I've got to know Mina a little in the couple of years since our last interview – I'm a fellow writer and we've shared events and gossip in festival green rooms. She's very funny, disarmingly frank, incredibly sharp and above all, totally down to earth. So I wonder how she feels about this recent whirlwind of success.
"To be honest it's all quite frightening. I try not to take it on board too much," she laughs. Mina laughs a lot. "I'm not fussed about parties or any of that other stuff, that makes me feel quite alarmed. Having said that, I'm much calmer doing those things than I used to be – I used to feel panicky, really inadequate."
Exuding supreme confidence as she does, with her shock of grey hair and piercing gaze, it's hard to imagine Mina feeling inadequate about anything. But she reveals that for a long time she suffered doubts that will sound familiar to many of her fellow writers.
"I've never really felt that secure about my work," she says. "But I maybe feel a bit more secure now. I don't feel like it's all imminently about to end, which was my position before. Every time a book came out I used to think, great, that's done, now where can I get a job waitressing? In my downtime I used to fret, but I don't get any downtime now, because of the graphic novels and everything else."
That "everything else" includes her latest novel, The Red Road. It's Mina's 11th novel and the fourth in a row to feature DI Alex Morrow, although, like its predecessors, The Red Road is less about a cop solving a crime and more about the widespread repercussions of criminal activity.
Touching on corruption within the police and legal system, and organised child abuse, the narrative is delivered from various viewpoints and switches from the present day to 1997. If there's a focus in the book, it's Rose, a 14-year-old girl in 1997 who is atrociously abused, and commits terrible crimes, only to have her past catch up with her in 2013. When I mention that, of all the main characters in The Red Road, Alex Morrow appears the least, Mina lets out another laugh.
"She's not really in any of the books much," she says. "She was just a trope at the start, I didn't want to write about a single protagonist and I didn't think I was writing a series. Because we tend to think of crime fiction as about the protagonist, people call them Alex Morrow books, but actually she was a way of looking holistically at lots of different aspects of one crime, because I think that's really interesting. It's not like clue-bump, clue-bump, clue-bump, you know? It's a way of looking at what the ripples are."
Given that The Red Road deals with the institutionalised abuse of young girls and their coercion into the sex trade, I wonder if Mina ever gets depressed writing about this stuff.
"Actually, no. Like a lot of Eighties feminists I went through a really dark place," she says. "A friend of mine read Andrea Dworkin and couldn't have sex for two years. I faced the fact back then that people are sexually abused, it was all being suppressed, and no one gave a fuck.
"But actually, with all the abuse cases in the news recently, people do give a fuck, abuse is getting statistically less likely, things are changing. One of the reasons that these things are coming out now is that they're a lot less usual. I'm really optimistic, loads of people have come forward because of the Savile inquiry and everything else, and it can only be a good thing to have it out in the open."
Despite her considerable success, Mina somehow still seems like an edgy outsider in the crime-writing scene. She confesses to feeling more of an affinity with the European crime tradition than the American one, declaring herself several times as a political writer, and claiming that saying so gets her into trouble on crime panels at festivals.
"I do feel a bit outside the mainstream," she says. "I don't think I fit into that 'buy this and read it on the beach' thing. I mean I don't care about whodunit, or the chasey bits in stories. But there's always a question the reader can ask: are they going to get away with it? Did they mean it? Why did they do it? How did that happen? There are so many questions other than who did it – I think that's really hackneyed. As a reader I don't like that question, because to sustain it for 300 pages the writer has to withhold information, so it dampens down the intimacy. Just say the fucking name of the murderer, I hate your stupid book and I'm only reading to find out who it was!"
Fellow crime writers, I suggest we be very wary of asking Denise Mina for a blurb for our next novels.
The Red Road, By Denise Mina
"People wanted to adopt fresh kids, and she wasn't that. Everyone else had someone. They weren't even grateful. Mostly they complained about who they had. Rose hated kids at school whining about their folks. Moaning because someone demanded to know where they'd been all night, angry if they came home covered in bruises, smelling of sick and spunk."
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