Murder With a Dash of Domesticity
Monday, April 14, 2008
SLIP OF THE KNIFE
By Denise Mina
Little, Brown. 340 pp. $24.99
The Scottish writer Denise Mina, besides having a wonderfully melodic name, is widely regarded as one of the most talented young crime novelists now at work in Great Britain. She's perhaps best known for a series that features Paddy Meehan, a trouble-prone, 27-year-old Glasgow journalist. "Slip of the Knife" is Mina's third Paddy Meehan novel, and it is a good showcase for her talents and priorities.
It should be said at the outset that there's a great deal going on in this novel. Two murders take place, and Paddy herself is targeted by the killer. In her professional life, she's risen to columnist -- her weekly rants are among her paper's most popular features -- but she must endure the jealousy of her colleagues ("They speculated unkindly about her sexual behavior, her income, her home life") and the venality of her editors. Perhaps what most distinguishes the Meehan books is the amount of space that Mina devotes to Paddy's personal life, which is pretty much a mess. She's a fat, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, sex-starved journalist with a 5-year-old son and a heart of gold. What's not to like?
Early in the novel, Paddy is watching a comedy show on TV with her housemate, Dub. If you've read the earlier books, you'll know that the lousy comedian they're watching, George Burns, is the father of Paddy's son, Pete. Their talk turns to the fact that a young man named Callum Ogilvy is about to be freed from prison. In the first Meehan novel, at the age of 10, Callum and another boy murdered a small child. Paddy was engaged to Callum's cousin at the time and became involved in the case; she's planning to help the cousin spirit the boy, now 19, away from prison and the media hordes that will be pursing him. Finally, Paddy and Dub's evening is interrupted by the news that her former lover and journalistic mentor, Terry Hewitt, has been murdered execution-style, in what may have been an IRA hit.
Paddy will, in time, investigate Hewitt's murder, but first we meet her family, including her recently widowed mother. Trisha, a devout Catholic, suffers mightily because one of her daughters is divorced and the other, Paddy, is destined for hell because she produced a child without acquiring a husband. Just when the mother has almost learned to live with those indignities, she is devastated by the news that her third daughter, Mary Ann, a nun, has fallen in love with a priest. Trisha proceeds to call her two loutish sons home from London, in hopes they can beat some sense into the errant priest.
Mina writes some fine, subtle scenes in which characters -- the nun, an IRA hit man, the young baby-killer -- surprise us in various ways. She also writes hilarious scenes about drunkenness, duplicity and related madness in the world of journalism. We meet one reporter who would "write that the Queen was a man if he thought it would get his career out of the toilet." An editor "maintained control of his staff with displays of temper a two-year-old would have thought vulgar." Mina is good with faces, too. A police officer "blinked twice, for her the equivalent of an emotional flurry." A crooked cop "had a stale smile stapled to his face."
One of the novel's interesting questions is what will happen to Callum Ogilvy. It doesn't inspire optimism that as he leaves prison, he reflects on "the one thing he knew for certain: everything smells the same when it's burning." Nor are we encouraged when he lusts for every woman who comes his way. Mina does not do as much with this very confused boy as she might have, but by the end of the novel we have a good idea which way he's headed.
Paddy learns the identity of the professional killer who murdered her friend, and soon he is out to silence her, too. After he threatens her son, Paddy demands a one-on-one meeting. This looks like a suicide mission -- and doesn't make much sense, given the alternatives available -- but it provides the dramatic showdown that Mina wants.
"Slip of the Knife" is a readable, stylishly written thriller, but by including so much of Paddy's personal life, Mina often lets her crime story get lost while Paddy worries about her sister's forbidden romance and her son's progress in school. One evening Paddy is at home cooking pasta and reflects that "with all the workaday reminders of routine and pending chores, the threat of Callum Ogilvy and the horror of Terry's death seemed faintly ludicrous." I wouldn't say they were ludicrous, but it's difficult for a novelist to juggle horrid crimes with the stuff of everyday life. Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade didn't have an everyday life, which simplified things considerably. But Mina and other modern writers are expanding the boundaries of the crime novel, even at the risk that some readers will skip the kitchen-sink scenes in search of the next murder most foul.