Scottish crime fiction is generally held to be a helpful category to be filed under if you want to sell books. The term ‘Tartan Noir’ is one that many find grating, but it has undoubtedly helped raise the profile of some of Scotland’s finest writers. The downside is that some may prejudge those writers, believing them to be an homogenous group dealing in crime clichés and formulaic prose. Nothing could be further from the truth. The gothic horror of Louise Welsh, the domestic nightmares of Doug Jonhstone, the black comedy of Christopher Brookmyre, the teak-tough working class dramas of William McIlvanney; all have found themselves collected together at festivals and on book shelves, but they are all gloriously different from one another. What does unite them is their ability to challenge the reader in a manner few other writers would dare.
Denise Mina is one of the most challenging in that she isn’t out to simply shock or unsettle, she wants to make you think. Her debut novel, 1998’s ‘Garnethill’, is notable not only in introducing one of Scotland’s most versatile and successful writers, but also because it brought crime fiction back to Glasgow after it had been largely absent since McIlvanney had stopped writing it in the early ‘90s. Christopher Brookmyre’s detective in ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’, Jack Parlabane, may have been Glaswegian, but we first meet him in Edinburgh, and Louise Welsh’s ‘The Cutting Room’ was still four years away.
The reasons for this are interesting to consider. The best-known writers in Glasgow at the time were Alasdair Gray and James Kelman. Through association with those two, people also thought of Archie Hinds, Agnes Owens and Jeff Torrington (whose ‘Swing Hammer, Swing’ is arguably THE great Glasgow novel). Glasgow seemed obsessed with literary fiction, as concerned with form and politics as much as content or plot. In Edinburgh, the success of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels overshadowed a lot of other crime fiction, and it was a while before his influence would have its full effect. Also, infamous 1935 novel ‘No Mean City’ cast a long shadow over Glasgow even at the end of the century, and it was an image many were keen to shake off. That meant that a lot of artists avoided referencing the violence and fear that novel perpetuated. It just so happened violence and fear were right up Denise Mina’s city centre street.
I remember ‘Garnethill’ being published and picking a copy up straight away on the name alone. It was a bold move to give your novel such a definite sense of place, but it added extra interest for those who new the area. It had, and retains, its own quirky identity. Built on a hill in the middle of the city, it was multicultural, an artistic centre, a mixture of the new and old, and with plenty of bedsits and B&B’s for its residents. The geographical detail grounds the novel and makes what happens all the more visceral, and the novel announced a new voice in Scottish writing that refused to be ignored.
Mina’s writing is as refreshing today as the first time I read it; humorous, frank, fearless and with serious intent, and ‘Garnethill’ is the perfect introduction. It begins with Maureen O’Donnell becoming the prime suspect for murder after her boyfriend is discovered dead in her flat. Everyone seems to think she may have done it, which, considering the brutal nature of the crime, immediately asks questions about Maureen’s character. It soon becomes clear that she is part of a dysfunctional family, to say the least, and she has had mental health problems that others look to use as an excuse for any behaviour they see as ‘not fitting’.
It is in dealing with such matters that Mina is at her best. She cuts through the crap and reflects honestly on topics such as mental health, physical and psychological abuse, addiction, bigotry – not necessarily about these things directly, but more about people’s attitudes towards them. The stance of ‘pull yourself together’ is one which Maureen encounters, and even uses herself with reference to other characters. There is compassion in the novel, with some wonderfully strong relationships, but there is also intolerance, deception, selfishness and doubt. When Thomas Hobbes wrote that the nature of life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, it appears he could have been describing it as viewed through a Garnethill window.
There is also a lot of violence in ‘Garnethill’, but it is not gratuitous. There are descriptions that are incredibly vivid and graphic, but that is to convey the nature of the crimes and the brutality behind them. Late in the novel there is a discussion between Maureen and her close friend Leslie about what male body parts a woman would cut off as opposed to a man, and while there is a black comedy on show, serious points are also being made. It’s another area where Mina excels; getting the balance between serious and funny just right, a notoriously difficult thing to pull off. She also has an eye for a spot on cultural reference, such as Alex Cox’s movie ‘Repo Man’, a Shakin’ Stevens’ key ring, ‘Planet of The Apes’ and Brylcreem. As if to prove my point, it’s time for some music:
And it has to be The Selecter as they are pivotal in ‘Garnethill’. “How can that be?”, I doubt you cry. You’ll have to read it to find out, but it means I can post one of the great pop songs of the 1980s, ‘On My Radio’:
Denise Mina has become one of Scotland’s best known and revered writers. Aside from the Garnethill Trilogy, all focusing on Maureen, she has written the Paddy Meehan novels, (including ‘Field of Blood’ which was brilliantly adapted for TV), and the Alex Morrow novels. She has done fine work in the field of the graphic novel, with a run on Vertigo Comics’ ‘Hellblazer’(seek out the Glasgow set ‘The Red Right Hand’ which is a riot) as well as the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy. She is one of the most accessible and thought provoking writers at work today. If you are one of those who never visit the crime section of your local bookshop, Denise Mina is well worth making that trip for.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: Today there are many celebrated Scottish women writers, some of whom appear on these pages, but this wasn’t always the case. If you were to ask someone in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s to name a contemporary Scottish female writer they would more than likely say Muriel Spark, or perhaps look back to the ‘30s and cite Willa Muir and Catherine Carswell.
One name they should have mentioned was Jessie Kesson. Her 1958 novel ‘The White Bird Passes’ was critically lauded at the time, but she was largely forgotten when anthologies of 20th century Scottish Literature were being written. It’s an autobiographical novel that is as poetic as it is heart breaking. A forgotten classic.