Book review: Gods and Beasts

DS Morrow is now a mother, but that hasn’t blunted the edge of the detective – or her excoriating creator, writes Stuart Kelly.

WERE I a public or political figure, I would be less concerned about tabloid intrusion or even the findings of the Leveson Inquiry than I would be worried about how Denise Mina might transform me into a character.

Her previous novel (and her second to feature DS Alex Morrow), The End Of The Wasp Season, featured a disgraced financier; and although it was nominally “about” the credit crunch and the banking scandals, Mina’s political acuity shone through: it was far more a book that dealt with the toxic effects of inequality. Gods And Beasts brings back Morrow, now the mother of twins, and weaves a gripping and sly narrative around three seemingly disconnected events.

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In a post office on the Great Western Road, a grandfather willingly helps an armed robber, while entrusting his grandson to a heavily tattooed stranger. When the money is packed up, the robber shoots him so frequently that parts of bone are lodged in the polystyrene ceiling (one of the little descriptive touches so frequent in Mina’s prose that are far more horrifyingly real than the work of her more flagrantly explicit peers).

Meanwhile, two constables under Morrow’s command make the rash decision to help themselves to a large amount of cash they find in a local drug dealer’s car; then find themselves being texted with photographs of them taking the money. Finally, a local firebrand politician, Kenny “Gallant” Gallagher decides to sue a tabloid newspaper for defamation after it claims he was having an affair with an intern. That he was – and indeed has had many affairs – does not blunt his determination.

The connections between these narratives only gradually emerge, but a major theme of the novel is the nature of connection itself; how lives intersect in troubling ways. The character of DS Morrow is developing in intriguing ways. Deliberately rebarbative in Still Midnight, she is anxious in Gods And Beasts that motherhood is making her soft, and her deliberate coldness and self-awareness about it is handled skilfully.

In terms of the ongoing plot, her relationship with her half-brother, the gangster Danny McGrath, is clearly being manoeuvred to greater and greater significance, and that relationship, combining mutual distrust and an ambiguous yearning for a closeness, is one of the novel’s strongest aspects. It also allows Mina to explore something which has become one of the most distinctive characteristics of the better contemporary crime novels: the difference between morality and legality, and the creative and satisfying tension between the solution necessary for the genre and the ongoing persistence of wrongs.

The title is rather garishly expanded on the cover; “In the heart of Glasgow it’s not always easy to tell them apart...”, though the novel itself reveals it comes from Aristotle: outside of the city, men are either gods or beasts. Aristotle used the word “polis” for city, from which we get our term politics; and part of the novel’s sophistication is in its forensic examination of the blighted body politic.

There are very few novelists with enough empathy and imagination to give a defence of politician’s expenses, and Mina makes a fair fist of it here. It is not, however, a roman à clef, although some of the internecine party feuding approaches high satire. Gallagher is a conflicted, vain and complicated figure, someone who seems less of a revolutionary than another victim of circumstance. The novel interrogates idealism and pragmatism, and there is a wonderful paean to the virtue of decency: Morrow, at one point, states it emphatically: “This job is not about being popular. It’s about being decent.”

For aficionados of the genre there is a great deal to admire, not just in the elegance of the plotting. As a police procedural, it manages to be more about policing than the endorsed procedures. For example, there is a superb moment when, after stopping a car, the police ask if the driver was using his mobile phone: they then check the call register, but in order to see the calls, not confirm whether or not it was being used beforehand.

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Morrow is a nimble psychologist, playing off uncertainty about how much the police actually know with enough hints and stoniness to find what they need to know. When they do get lucky, they get lucky on the back of a great deal of work. Her police are not the stereotyped mavericks, but people concerned about job losses and mortgages.

Mina’s writing is lithe and spare, but alert: there is a world of resonance in a sentence like “Malcolm had hit her only once or twice, early in their marriage” – the placing of that “only” is exceptionally revealing. For those who know Mina’s entire oeuvre, there is a nice cameo for Paddy Meehan, from The Field Of Blood, The Dead Hour and The Final Breath, hopefully a precursor for her imminent return to print.

Readers inclined to be sniffy about genre fiction would do well to read Mina. As the parallel series progress they become more than the sum of the individual novels, and metamorphose into a kind of 21st century Comédie Humaine – a excoriating look at the way that we live, and die, now.

Gods And Beasts

Denise Mina

Orion, £12.99