Denise Mina: Writer
Denise Mina is one of Scotland’s most talented writers and when you have finished one of her books you just can’t wait for the next. Thankfully they just keep coming and I am amazed at her productivity – a busy mother of young children and part of a large extended family – she has a lot going on in her life. But up she pops at numerous literary festivals and events smiling happily, chatting about her writing, speaking of her views on life and reassuring us that yet another book is on its way.
In her fairly short career she has been incredibly prolific producing a number of short stories, a series of graphic comics for Hellblazer, and now a graphic novel. I loved her short play Ida Tamson (part of OranMor’s A Play, A Pie, and A Pint series) – and wrote a review about it. She writes thought provoking newspaper articles but most of all she has gained international recognition for her wonderful crime novels.
Since her first novel ‘Garnethill’ won the Crime Writers’ Association John Creasy Dagger Award for the best first crime novel in 1998, she has continued to produce gripping tales addressing a range of ‘uncomfortable’ topics. With ‘Exile’ and ‘Resolution’ completing the Garnethill Trilogy, Maureen O’Donnell – a most complex heroine – became fixed firmly in my mind as she struggled to deal with her mental health problems, family issues and Glasgow’s darker side.
Maureen, like Mina’s other young heroine, the journalist Paddy Meehan, is absolutely endearing. Mina’s characters seem strangely familiar and both these heroines experience life in a very recognisable way. They are very far removed from your run of the mill, cool and glamorous creatures that pepper the detective novel genre. They are Glesga lassies – intelligent, vulnerable, brave and real. So real that you empathise with each trial and trauma – you even find yourself feeling quite critical of them at times but you wish them only well.
Having first encountered the Paddy Meehan character in ‘The Field of Blood’ 2005 then following her further adventures in’The Dead Zone’ published in 2006, I was saving The Last Breath (2007) for my special holiday read – and I’ve just finished it. In the book, Meehan, the ambitious young journalist, has become a successful writer. Not only has she moved up in the world but she has new responsibilities in the shape of her son Pete. His existence brings a whole new dimension to her character and makes the story more harrowing. When she finds herself in danger investigating the murder of Terry Patterson, someone she had been in love with and admired, the fear she feels for Pete’s safety is tangible.
‘The Last Breath’ is gripping from the word go and just what you want on a longish flight. It is easy to see how the author is so successful in Glasgow, her hometown. as she skilfully creates the image of the city – its social problems, bravado and warmth. I was amazed at vivid description, which so succinctly and wittily sums up the changing image of the city and the people’s response:
‘For a century Glasgow had been a byword for deprivation and knife-wielding teenage gangs but in the past few years the thick coat of black soot had been sandblasted off the old buildings, revealing pale yellow sandstone that glittered in the sun, or blood-orange stone that clashed with blue skies. International theatre companies and artists had started coming to the city, colonizing unlikely venues, old churches, schools, markets and abandoned sheds, places the locals failed to notice every day. Glaswegians no longer felt as defensive of their home, began to look around with renewed interest, like a partner in a stale marriage finding out that their spouse was a heart-throb abroad.’
Mina has a gift for story telling and an extraordinary ability in the use of language not only does she create vibrant imagery but her small descriptions afford us insight into the views and feelings of her characters:
‘Burns was as suspicious as a faithless man could be’.
And in just one short sentence she sums up the style of Burn’s (Pete’s father’s) home.
“The cookie-cutter blandness made Paddy crave a ghetto’.
In contrast, Pete’s response to the same destination demonstrates the child’s innocence and unjaded joy for life:
‘Pete was delighted to have been whipped out of school … it was his nature to enjoy unexpected turns of events; surprise days out, holidays changed at the last minute … He clutched his backpack and looked out of the taxi window as if he’d never been here before.’
There is violence in the novel and Mina has a trick of painting some of the most ugly moments very dramatically by combining harsh and beautiful description.
‘…the left hand was thrown out to the side, palm open to the ceiling, like a singer reaching the crescendo. On the top of his head, facing the three of them, was a gash of bloody skin, a ragged split. Warm blood was oozing lazily out of it, the puddle black in the dark of the kitchen, a slow-moving slick of ink that glistened silver as it split into tributaries on the uneven floor, making lakes of dips, looking for the sea.’
It is this ability to write so well and beautifully that has thrown up a discussion as to whether Ms Mina ‘transcends the genre. Whilst she is aware that publishers may mean well when they see her work as ‘more than just crime fiction – better’. However, she is not inclined to buy into the high art/low art politics of writing and responds with some humour that ‘Putting a Stetson on a cat doesn’t make it a cowboy.’ She is quite unconcerned that crime novels are viewed by some as of a lower literary ranking than for example historical novels…:
“here’s my point: as long as crime fiction is to remain as vibrant and socially significant as it is we should embrace our low status.”
(You can read Mina’s very interesting views on this topic in her article “The Politics of Crime Writing: British Arts Council –
British Council website
In her writing she encompasses much that is familiar power relationships at work, affection within the family, simple pleasure, fear, frailty, tenderness and passion. You are also confronted with cruelty, corruption and horrific crime. Her writing is exceptional and above all Mina has the gift of story telling – her books are thoroughly deserving of the acclaim they have attracted.
It was most fortuitous that she started writing when she should have been completing her Law Thesis and I for one am delighted that she swerved from her first career choice.
At present she is writing a film adaption of Ida Tamson and no-one will be at all surpised if Denise Mina goes onto achieve success on the big screen because there is simply no stopping her. She will continue to do well because she just lets go and unleashes all that talent and she is a very nice person. She came along to meet me for a coffee and a chat when she had a very bad cold and little time to spare because she had to go and pick up her children. I think most people would have cancelled.
She kind of reminded me of her heroines – very likeable and lots of ordinary and extraordinary stuff going on at the very same time.:
Pat Byrne, 2007.
Further information about Denise Mina and her work
Denise Mina Official Website – with information about books, writing and events: www.denisemina.co.uk
Interview with Denise Mina
British Council Website – Contemporary Writers – Denise Mina
The Last Breath – Review by Barry Forshaw. The Independent
Arts Independent website
Prizes and awards
1998 Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger Garnethill
1998 Crime Writers’ Association Macallan Short Story Dagger (Helena and the Babies)
2000 Scotland on Sunday/Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award
2007 Edgar Award (shortlist) The Dead Hour
2017 McIlvanney Prize Scottish Crime Book of the Year ‘The Long Drop’
This section: writers
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- Leela Soma: ‘Vermillion’ a poem for Autumn
- Janet Paisley: Scottish Author, Poet and Playwright
- Glasgow Writer: Stuart Cosgrove
- Denise Mina: Writer
- Glasgow Writers: Kevin Scott
- Glasgow Writers: Alistair Braidwood – Scots Whay Hae!
- Glasgow Writers: Theresa Talbot
- Graeme Macrae Burnet – Glasgow Writer
- The Garngad: Heaven and Hell by Ian R. Mitchell
- West Texas Highs; Be In Your Own Movie by Ian R. Mitchell
- Glasgow Writer: James Connarty
- Glasgow Writer: Stephanie Brown
- Glasgow Writer: Samina Chaudry
- Glasgow Writers: Willy Maley
- Glasgow Writers: Stephen Watt, Poet
- Glasgow Writers: Pauline Lynch
- Glasgow Writer: Micheal Norton