DENISE Mina’s intricately plotted literary thriller is more whydunnit then whodunnit, writes Allan Massie
Blood, Salt, Water
Orion, 295pp, £14.99
A woman walks confidently with the men who have taken possession of her. Only at the last minute does she realise she is about to get a different sort of pay-off. The hard man who delivers the fatal blow and dumps her body in Loch Lomond is appalled by what he has done, even while recognising what from his point of view is its necessity. It is a mark of Denise Mina’s maturity that he will turn out to be one of the more sympathetic characters in the novel. She has become thoroughly assured in her craftsmanship.
For this novel she has moved away from Glasgow, but only as far as Helensburgh. It’s not a town that you are likely to associate with crime, but in Mina’s fiction, as in Ian Rankin’s, crime may permeate all levels of society. When you come upon a lawyer you should at once guess that he is bent. The police themselves may be corrupted. In the case which DI Alex Morrow has been tracking, an investigation into suspected money laundering, her superiors in Police Scotland seem most concerned that money from the Proceeds of Crime should come to them rather than to the Met in London where the inquiry began.
Morrow has been keeping track of a Spanish woman, Roxanna, who arrived in Glasgow and bought a dodgy insurance company with money that almost certainly wasn’t hers. But now a call traced to one of her two young children announces her disappearance. Eventually her mobile phone will be tracked to a field outside Helensburgh; a local farmer reports the mysterious coming and going of cars. Has Roxanna been murdered? Is she the woman in the loch? Or has she scarpered? Meanwhile there are strange goings-on in the little town. A woman has returned, apparently from the USA, to a crumbling house which belonged to her late mother, or so she says. She meets men whom she claims to have known when she was a Scout leader – and asks one of them if he can supply her with cocaine. And then there is a case of arson, and the suspicion is that the victim may have offended the local crime boss, conveniently on holiday in Spain.
Mina spins an intricate web. The plot demands the reader’s close attention. She is honest with the reader; it’s your own fault, your own careless reading, if you are led astray. Alex Morrow is a credible policewoman, partly because there is nothing remarkable about her; she is a married woman, mother of young twins, and doing a difficult job with intelligence and humanity. She can be tough when meeting with a lack of co-operation, but treats witnesses fairly. She is always aware of the restrictions imposed by the law on investigations and the treatment of suspects
This is a well-constructed novel which will sit happily in the crime section of bookshops, and will undoubtedly appeal to those who read only crime fiction. Fair enough; yet Mina is one of those authors who is making the distinction between the crime novel and the straight or literary one seem unnecessary, even ridiculous. This is not only because her work is a long way from the classic detective or mystery novel, in which the puzzle – the whodunnit – was the most interesting question. Nor is it because she eschews artificiality. Most crime writers do that today, to the extent at least that there are few locked rooms or hard-to-trace poisons. On the other hand she is blessedly uninterested in the minutiae of police procedure, contenting herself with giving it enough of a nod to acquit herself of any charge of ignoring the way in which police work is carried out. Where, however, she differs from many admired literary novelists is in her awareness of the obligation to tell a story. She realises that narrative and the ability to offer a story which has the reader eager to know what happens next are at the heart of fiction. Yet she bridges the tiresome or irritating gulf between crime and literary fiction because she is interested in character and the demands that society and, one might add, the conventions of social life make on the individual. Criminal acts in her novels aren’t merely a breach of the law. The law itself is imperfect, not always delivering justice; and it is justice that concerns her as it does any novelist who is a moralist, concerned with the right way for people to think, feel and act. Murder is an offence because the murderer or, in her novels, more often the person who has assumed the right to order that someone be killed, is guilty of psychopathological egoism. In this respect she is close to William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw novels; the real crime is the assumption that other people do not matter, that they are mere obstacles to be removed. Murder represents a failure, or denial, of the reality and value of other people. It is an expression of a selfish individualism that despises other individuals. And yet she understands the stresses that may bring a person to obey the order to commit murder. There is more than one killer in this novel, and one of them is perhaps more to be pitied than condemned.
In short, this is a novel which invites us, even compels us, both to think and feel; which is the mark of the best imaginative fiction.
• Denise Mina is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 29 August