by Denise Mina
Bantam press 2007. (In the USA, the title is A Slip of the Knife.)
Review by Bill Kirton
Crime fiction is a strange genre. Its popularity ensures that it’s well represented in the bestseller lists and yet, once you get past the Ian Rankins, Val McDermids, Jeffrey Deavers, Elmore Leonards and all the rest, there are dozens of excellent writers whose books are just as gripping, compulsive and skilfully written. Denise Mina is successful, has a good following and yet her name isn’t heard as often as it should be. She deserves to be in the very top rank of crime writers.
She studied law at Glasgow University, did research for a PhD on mental illness in female offenders and, simultaneously, taught criminology and criminal law. Her first novel Garnethill won the John Creasey Dagger for the best first novel. It was published in 1998 and followed by Exile and Resolution to make up the Garnethill trilogy. These novels, like the series featuring Paddy Meehan, the central character of The Last Breath, are set in Glasgow. It’s the Glasgow of the 1980s, 1990s, and the present day. Mina knows it intimately, its architecture, politics, corruptions, inequalities, speech patterns, the special humour and resilience of its citizens. But she also knows and has great compassion for people, and her Glaswegians have the impulses, desires, foibles and idosyncrasies of people everywhere.
Paddy Meehan first appeared in The Field of Blood, working as a dogsbody in the offices of the Scottish Daily News but dreaming of being a real journalist. That was followed by The Dead Hour, in which she’s moved a little way up the hierarchy, and the Edgar-nominated The Last Breath sees her higher still. From the start, we follow her anxieties, misfortunes, successes and battles with colleagues, police and family members. She’s a very real, funny and determined woman, a match for all the men she has to deal with and if only there were a better word than feistiness (which always seems to me to sound wrong for what it means), she would be the epitome of it. (An aside to explain what I mean about feisty: first, it’s too close to ‘fusty’ – or the even better Scots version of that, ‘foostie’; second, it seems to be used almost exclusively when referring to women and implies that being feisty isn’t customary for them; and third, its derivation is downright unpleasant, the noun from which it arises being defined in a slang dictionary of 1811 as ‘a small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs’. I rest my case.)
The point is that Paddy Meehan is a terrific creation and, as a reader, I’m grateful to Mina for letting us follow her progress, psychologically as well as practically, in such careful detail. It’s great to spend time in her company.
In this novel, her sister, an ex-nun, reveals her love affair with a priest, and that’s the least interesting of the various plots which Mina interweaves so skilfully. They include the release from prison of a young man who killed a child when he (the killer) was a child himself, police corruption, the murder of Paddy’s ex-lover by the IRA (or not, since they deny any involvement), threats to her wee son, and the demands of her editor to give her inside line on these major news events.
Mina’s skill lies not only in creating these utterly plausible strands, but also in weaving them together in a way which makes them all part of a single fabric. They aren’t sub-plots which coincide; they’re events and people which/who interact, send ripples through each other, and draw Paddy to a tense, brilliant conclusion which resolves them all in a very disturbing finale.
I really feel it’s impossible to do justice to Mina’s intelligence, her observational skills and the rhythms and flow of her writing. It’s all informed by her understanding of the politics of Northern Ireland and their manifestations in Glasgow, her perceptions of the impulses and motives of the child-killing child, her enormous sympathy for society’s undervalued members, her sheer humanity – sorry, I could prolong this list much further. And she creates it all with such mastery of the novelist’s art. Her prose crackles (apology for yet another cliché), her dialogue is perfect, her one-liners are pinpoint accurate, her manipulation of plots and effects never falters. Threats and menace lace through the ordinariness and realness of all these lives. There’s a really gripping death scene which is violent but never gratuitous. Every aspect of the writing is so assured. In fact, to prove it, just go to her website and read the gripping opening chapter of The Last Breath. You’ll find here:
The Last Breath