She's the fastest rising star of the Scottish crime writing scene, just don't ask DENISE MINA who her favourite gangsters are. Words: Brian Donaldson
IF YOU'RE EVER GATHERING TOGETHER A SQUAD of crack contestants for a crime quiz. the name of Denise Mina should not be first on your team sheet. ‘l’m so shite at them that I'm basically the comic relief.’ says the Glasgow writer. ‘I was so bad in one that Minette Walters was whispering answers to me. They‘re usually an anorak‘s heaven. but I can’t even remember names or titles. I‘m just so not High l’idelity.‘
What Denise Mina can claim to be though. is the fastest rising star of a Scottish crime writing scene populated with more bodies than a funeral parlour during an undertakers strike. The vacuum which Ian Rankin believed existed in the 70s and 80s is now stuffed to the limits: Christopher Brookmyre. Manda Scott. Paul Johnston. Val McDermid. plus Rankin and Mina themselves are the key pioneers of this ‘movement‘. Mina prefers another name for it. ‘I think it‘sjust a fad: people like groups to focus on so the whole Tartan Noir thing fits that for now.‘
Mina actually sees something more fundamental about this explosion of Scottish crime writing than just a load of authors happening to pen a few books at the same time. It is feeding a desire in the Caledonian psyche. a deep-seated yearning for the ghoulish that can only be met with the production of book after tome filled with investigative vets (Scott). detectives with flaws (Rankin). punchy political satires (Brookmyre) or a maverick with a bleak past and a cause (Mina).
‘C‘rime fiction is quite close to the Scottish sensibility.‘ Mina insists. 'Maybe it‘s the preponderance of religion. that (‘alvinist thing in Scottish culture of telling dark stories in the oral tradition. Like. in Glasgow. people gossip about murders. whereas if you lived in Surbiton. you wouldn't necessarily be doing that. In a coffee shop. I met this wee lady who told that me that she‘d done this bus run of Peter Manuel sites. places where he‘d killed people. places where he‘d gone into hiding. She was about 80 and been on it three times and she just thought that it was totally brilliant. But I think Scottish literature does lean towards to that..
Mina’s own leanings towards the genre is partly down to her academic background. Born in I966. she has both studied and taught law in Glasgow. and having dabbled in comedy writing with pocket guides to men and flirting. she struck gold with Garnet/till. Her heroine is Maureen O'Donnell. a woman with a bucketload of trouble which all appears to stem from her belief that she was a victim of child abuse. The discovery of her slaughtered boyfriend in the kitchen at the very beginning doesn't help in easing her state
of mind. Garnet/rill (the first in a trilogy) won the prestigious John Creasey Gold Dagger Award for the best crime debut from 1998 and is the subject of forthcoming small and big screen adaptations. She has since ditched her PhD on mental illness in female offenders after a year to concentrate fully on the writing.
And from being favourably judged herself. Mina is now in the process of giving marks out of ten to other authors for the same prize. As well as providing her with the material to waste away many an hour on the beach. it has opened her eyes to the kind of artist she is vying for attention with. ‘A lot of them are quite cynical. and I don‘t think they actually
want to be writers: it‘s all slash ‘em up and rip their guts out. Then you‘ll have ones where your protagonist is a velociraptor or something. I‘m quite excited by that one just to see what the hell it's about. People's first books are very interesting because you cram everything you know into it because you don‘t think you‘ll get another one published again.‘ The success. both commercial and critical. of (Jamel/till meant that there was very little chance she would not have been requested to visit madame muse fora second time. Her new one [iii/e takes ()‘Donnell onto the trail of a murdered Scottish woman in London and seems certain to continue her success. She is twenty pages into the final instalment with
Resolution. and then she is set to change tack with a multi-narrative tale of a child murdered by a peer. In the light of the nation‘s experiences with the Jamie Bulger and Mary Bell tragedies. Mina feels that new attitudes need to be had when it comes to such traumatic cases.
‘I was really shocked by the Bulger case and astonished by the reaction of responsible. well-thought of. educated people who were prepared to brand these children as evil.‘ Mina recalls. ‘They were prepared to wash their hands of them as though they grew up in a vacuum or were nothing to do with their culture or the way we view children as
property. It was just people saying. “I don't understand you and I’m not going to try" and they just indulge in this social amputation. To try these wee boys in an adult court is just insane. they wouldn't have understood anything that was going on. It was just this big adult farce around a pair of kids who were already really damaged.~
It is this sense of damage. destruction and carnage. both literal and actual which make Denise Mina's novels compelling and crucial. If only she were given questions about her own books. she may yet be a crime quiz queen.
Exile is published by Bantam Press on Mon 14 Aug, £9.99.
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