I read Denise Mina as part of my research for my Master’s thesis. And I absolutely love her. A Scottish crime author, Mina sets most of her books in Glasgow. She has a few different series, and most of her books feature female protagonists. While one might classify Mina as a “gritty” author, I don’t feel that she ever goes over-the-top. Her novels tend to play out very realistically.
I first read Mina’s Garnethill trilogy. It’s a bit hard to describe these books, as it does not follow any one pattern. We focus on Maureen, a young woman who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital. She had a mental breakdown, and has to come to terms with the abuse she faced as a child and tried to forget. Maureen is having an affair with a therapist named Douglas, but their relationship has waned and she is only waiting for a way to end it for good. She wakes up one morning to find Douglas murdered in her living room. Garnethill revolves around Maureen’s search for Douglas’ killer, and to keep herself as sane as she can be in the situation. The other books in the trilogy see Maureen thrust into a situation where she must unravel a mystery of someone’s death – but it is almost always someone she has grown to care about, for whatever reason. But even while she runs around Glasgow and London looking for murderers and wrongs to right, Maureen constantly struggles with herself and her family. Terrified of her father’s return, and the possibility that seeing him will fully remind her of her own abuse, Maureen lives in fear of something that will not physically kill her. This is what I love about Mina – her ability to create these complex characters, people who are so vividly painted they seem so real. You begin to wonder how Maureen can cope, how she deals with everything thrown her way, but at the same time you cannot help but root for her to beat whatever demons lay in her past. The books are not crime novels, but rather a psychological character study with a bit of murder thrown in. Mina makes this her pattern, and it sets her apart from the common author in her chosen genre.
Another great thing about Mina is she does not shy away from writing about her own experiences. Raised in Scotland, Mina comes from a family of Irish Catholics. Though most would just shrug their heads at this information, it would have raised a few eyebrows in Scotland while Mina was growing up. You can’t help but find parallels to the author’s own life and experiences when you read her Paddy Meehan series. The brilliance of this series comes in the timing – the first set in Glasgow 1981, second in 1984, and third around 1990. Published almost twenty years after their setting, Mina is able to look back with some clarity on the events of the time, and really explore their effects on Paddy. Paddy is also an Irish Catholic, and her family goes through some tough struggles because of who they are and where they came from. While her background helps Paddy a few times, most of the time she finds herself hindered because of something she cannot change.
But even more captivating is Mina’s breaking with traditional crime fiction tradition. We don’t see Paddy go from case to case. Instead, we get to witness pockets of her life, the few times that she needs to go out of her way to find the truth. It never seems ludicrous that she continues to find herself in these situations because they do not happen one right after another. Paddy is a journalist, but even in her occupation she only finds herself in the crime solving mode every few years. It’s refreshing and feels so much more real to the discerning reader. A continued pattern from the Garnethill trilogy, Mina has found a way to make the every(wo)man detective plausible.
I actually got to meet Mina almost a year ago. She was hilarious and interesting, telling the small audience stories of her life while weaving it all into how she became a writer. I had just completed my Master’s thesis, and Garnethill ended up being about half of my argument. I was alone and noticed that the majority of the audience had about twenty years on me, but I could not give up the opportunity to be there and listen. What struck me first was the fact that she was there as part of the Stirling International Book Festival, and she was wearing a type of jogging pants under her dress and slippers on her feet. I loved her at first sight. I of course already loved her books, but her personality could not have been better. She is one of those that finds her success almost amusing. In Britain, she is a fluff writer, but a well-known one. In America, she is sold as a literary writer, and that alone was completely amusing to her.
You always worry that your favorite authors, who happen to be successful, will know that they are read. Instead, Mina struck me as someone who would be surprised by how many people read and are touched by her books. After the interview, she signed books and I brought up my post-itted (new word!), marked up, broken-spined paperback copy of Garnethill. Noticing all of the post-its protruding from the book, Mina asked me what they were. When I told her about my Master’s thesis, she wanted to know more of how I incorporated the trilogy into the argument, what other authors I had used, and then signed the book, “Thank you.” She then agreed to me emailing her and asking her a few questions about Ian Rankin, though I had to promise they would be nothing personal. I just wanted a couple of bits for an article, and she was more than happy to clarify a few statements she had made that evening. I can still remember that night almost perfectly, and I revisit my notes of the interview and brag about the encounter often. It was so amazingly fun that I cannot believe it was real.
This is why I love Mina. Her books are fantastic, deep, personal, and emotional. I feel connected to her characters, to her plots, and to Mina herself because of what she writes. Having met her almost deepens that connection because you are able to really put a face with the writing. While some literary scholars would scold me for bringing the author into the work, you cannot deny that the author is the one who wrote the works you are studying. There will always be a connection between the person and their words, and Mina especially bridges that gap wonderfully.