|Photo by Colin McPherson|
When critic Terrence Rafferty called Glasgow-based crime-fiction writer Denise Mina “another plate of haggis altogether,” he wasn’t just riffing on her country’s affection for the boiled pudding of suet, oatmeal and minced organ meats. Mina’s work feels internal and — to an American reader — exotically Scottish. Maureen O’Donnell, the messy heroine of Mina’s award-winning trilogy — Garnethill, Exile and Resolution — is boozy, expletive-happy, fresh from a stint at a mental hospital and unwittingly thrust into grisly murder scenarios involving Glasgow’s dispossessed that have her playing detective.
The protagonist of Mina’s latest critically acclaimed book, Deception, isn’t what you’d call a professional gumshoe, either. The book unfolds, diary-style, with downtrodden househusband Lachlan Harriot trying to prove the innocence of his prison-psychiatrist wife, Susie, convicted of murdering her serial-killer patient.
Recently, Mina spoke to L.A. Weekly about her special brand of gritty, emotional-tailspin crime writing; right-wing fiction; why the U.S. version of Deception was slightly altered; and why her lively Scottish brogue wasn’t the only reason she was hard to understand long-distance. “You’re phoning me on the tiniest mobile phone in the world,” she said. “I mean, I’m holding a matchbox to my head. It’s probably very bad reception.”
L.A. WEEKLY: You started writing crime fiction because you were, and I quote, “fed up with big men solving crimes with women in the background.”
DENISE MINA: Yeah, absolutely! I don’t know how it is in L.A., but everywhere I go in Glasgow, there are wee guys shouting abuse at you. “Show us yer tits!” That just doesn’t happen to male protagonists at all. I think it’s a very different landscape if you’re a woman.
Had you always been a fan of the genre?
[I’d read] a lot of crap, really right-wing fiction, particularly Patricia Cornwell. [In her books,] people who commit crimes are different from us, and the central character is right about everything. The very first Scarpetta book is lovely. After that, it’s fascinating: Her central character gets more and more divorced from reality, and [Cornwell] gets more and more right-wing and more glamorous in the author’s photo. At first, she’s chubby, slightly bashful. Then she’s got expensive clothes on. Then she’s wearing an equestrian outfit, standing out a window, looking back at you and presenting her bum like a little dog or something. It’s fucking crazy. She sells tens of millions of books, and people are reading it and thinking, “Well, it’s a scientific procedural, so she obviously knows something about crime — they must be evil, these people.” These ideas permeate the culture. People don’t question them.
Do you see crime differently in Glasgow, where you’ve set all your books?
Glasgow has the highest per capita imprisonment rate anywhere in Western Europe. If you’re working-class or lower-middle-class, you’ll know somebody who’s been in prison. There’s a kind of socialist assumption in Glasgow. Everybody assumes that sticking it to the man is a good thing. They have a real respect for criminals. Criminality is not someone else, someplace else in Glasgow. It’s part of the culture.
Because of your father’s engineering job, you were raised all over the world — Paris, Amsterdam, London. What made you decide to call Glasgow home?
I have a huge extended family there. But also, Glasgow is a nice place to be poor, because everybody is. In Glasgow, instead of saying to people, “What do you do for a living?” and judging them on their job, everyone says, “Do you have a job? Have you ever worked?” In 1986, the recession was at the tail end. I’d come from London, which at the time was very Tory and very money-oriented, to stay with my mum to get enough money to go back, and I just fell in love. It was a different world: Everyone at bus stops would introduce themselves to you. It was like the war had just finished.
What do you and Lachlan Harriot, the narrator of Deception, have in common?
He’s really self-obsessed, always taking his emotional temperature and arriving at big conclusions. He’s not dishonest about much, though. I think he’s quite brutal with himself about how foolish he is. Some men find it hard to stomach how emasculated he is, how much he loves his wife. Women are more sympathetic — they get emasculated all the time. To be a woman is to feel very foolish.
How did you come up with using murder mystery as a device to explore complex social issues like alcoholism, sexual abuse, mental illness and battering?
I was doing a Ph.D. on mental illness and female offenders, and I realized that six people would read it. I thought if I could write a crime novel with the same stuff in it, hundreds of people would read it. I never realized that it would be, like, thousands.
What was your thesis about?
The judicial system ascribes mental illness in a different way for men and women. If a man asserts himself in an antisocial way, he’s regarded as very bad and is sent to prison. But if a woman behaves in an antisocial way, she’s regarded as irrational and is sent to a mental hospital. But what could be more rational than a woman who is failed by the judicial system and her family, who decides to take her life into her own hands and impress her will on the world?
You used your Ph.D. grant to support yourself while writing Garnethill. Did you have to pay it back?
No! I’d gotten stuck in a theoretical cul-de-sac. It was a nightmare. I’m sweating just talking to you about it. I did say to my academic supervisor, “I don’t think I’m going to finish my piece. Do you think I’m going to run off and be a crime writer?” And he said, “If I were you, I would.”
Little, Brown chose to reword some of the Scottish slang in Deception. Why?
Personally, I love reading something where you read a sentence over and over to get a sense of what a word means. But I think a lot of people find it very frustrating. I get letters from American people saying, “What is a skank?”
You’re working on a new series, right?
[Yes,] about a journalist working in Glasgow in 1981. The books fit together into a biography of her, and she dies at the end. She’s a crime reporter named Paddy Meehan, after a criminal who was the subject of quite a miscarriage of justice in Glasgow. [Wrongfully convicted of the murder of Rachel Ross in 1969, he received a royal pardon in 1976, seven years into his life sentence.] There’s a stream of true crimes through the book — it’s fiction and true crimes together.
You have a 10-month-old son. Has motherhood changed how you think about violence?
People said to me, “Once you’ve had a baby, you’ll never write about violence again.” What shite! I’m very happy — and I write much quicker. Your time is very precious, and the best toy in the world is right next door.
DECEPTION | By DENISE MINA | Little, Brown
320 pages | $23.95 hardcover
Denise Mina will discuss Deception on Saturday, September 18, 1 p.m., at the Mystery Bookstore, 1036 Broxton Ave., Westwood, (310) 209-0415.