Lisa, a young woman from North Berwick, camera in hand, is shooting a film of a deserted French chateau in the company of two Belgian urbexers (urban explorers for those who, like me, don’t know the term). She comes on a silver casket with an inscription which says it was given to Pontius Pilate, “follower of the King of the Jews” as “a worthy vessel for the proof of his resurrection” (I guess this was before he planted that yew tree at Fortingall.)
Lisa then disappears, but not before she has attracted the attention of Anna, the novel’s narrator. With her colleague Fin, with whom she makes podcasts, she sets out in search of what may have happened to Lisa. Her search – given this kind of novel, one should say “her quest” - takes her to the chateau, to Paris and to Rome, and they are joined by Bram van Wyk, a large Afrikaner art-dealer and crook and the young son he has recently discovered. Bram is formidable, at times frightening, given – a nice touch – to smoking Sobranie cocktail cigarettes. Through him, Anna learns something of the history of the casket, the backstory leading us to Nazi-occupied Hungary, murders in Beirut and Bari, American collectors of religious art, a burglary in a museum in Boston, and a murdering priest who seems to have been Bram’s great friend. It is all splendidly complicated, made even more so for elderly readers by the author’s delight in the digital world.
All the casket and Church stuff indicates that Mina has enjoyed venturing into Dan Brown territory, even to the extent of mocking it. Of course, her book is very different to his stuff, being light, inventive and high-spirited with echoes of Umberto Eco. Actually, however, it is more in the vein of certain Hitchcock movies, in particular North by North- West, where you are invited to share the film-maker’s delight in his style and inventiveness, but not to take murder seriously as in, for instance Strangers on a Train.
Denise Mina is of course fully aware of the true horror of violence and murder. This was never more apparent than in that remarkable and chilling novel The Long Drop, which won the McIlvanney Prize for crime writing a few years ago. Likewise, in her early fiction she showed she could write what might be called the standard Tartan Noir novel at its most realistic, and do this as well as anyone and far better than most. But she has always been ready to explore other ways of writing about crime – last year’s short recreation of the Rizzio murder in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, for example.
There are some true-to-life passages in Confidence: Anna’s memory of her own troubled past, and her concerns about how learning of this may affect her daughters, for instance, but for the most part this is a playful novel, written with energy, inventiveness and glee. Graham Greene for a long time used to distinguish between his serious novels and those that he styled “entertainments”. Actually one or two of the “entertainments” were grim as well as being entertaining – Brighton Rock, for example. Mina doesn’t, as far as I know, make any such distinction, but if she did, this elegant and witty novel would be classed as an entertainment.
Ian Rankin has called Mina “the cream of the crop” of crime writers today. There’s never much point in drawing up league tables of authors, even though most are probably aware of a degree of competition with their contemporaries, and also indeed with others who have gone before. It is enough to say that a book is good or bad. This is a good one. The lively plot brings in a lot of fine things. It may also be a fair, if disturbing, reflection of a world where nobody need know anything except where and how to find out almost immediately anything they seek to know – a world also where, horribly, it seems you are never alone, never under the radar. The immediacy of information retrieval is good fun here, but also disturbing when you think about it.
Confidence, by Denise Mina, Harvill Secker, 291pp, £14.99