The opening scene of Scottish suspense master Denise Mina’s new novel is as odd as its title: “Blood, Salt, Water.”
In a deserted area near Loch Lomond, two men and a woman get out of their van and begin walking toward the water. The woman is clearly a prisoner of some sort, but she doesn’t put up a fight; in fact, as one of the men thinks to himself: “She’d been as biddable as a heifer for the two days they had her.” The victim even smiles as she walks in single file with her escorts, one in the lead, one guarding her from the rear. The woman’s air of calm, however, dissipates in an instant once she spots a boat waiting for them at lochside. She screams and kicks at the men and then tries to run. Quickly, one of the men employs “an old prison trick” and smacks her on the jaw. She drops, unconscious, to the ground. The inevitable denouement unfolds in silence.
More than the violence, it’s the off-kilter serenity of the first moments of that scene that makes it so disturbing. We readers don’t quite understand what we’re witnessing, but, in our bafflement, we’re still way ahead of the police. Detective Alex Morrow and her team are searching for that woman, whose name turns out to be Roxanna Fuentecilla. They’ve had her under surveillance in Glasgow for weeks. Precious hours pass before Morrow realizes with sick certainty that Fuentecilla hasn’t voluntarily given them the slip.
Even among the other practitioners of so-called Tartan Noir — fellow Scots like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and William McIlvanney — Mina has distinguished herself by her particularly dour worldview. Criminal and cop are separated only by a hairsbreadth of circumstance. (Indeed, Detective Morrow’s half-brother, Danny, is locked away in prison.) Some of Mina’s offenders are just “born that way”; others have been shaped by their bad environment and worse luck. Free will counts for less in Mina’s chill universe than a good roll of the dice.
All of Mina’s novels — whether they’re part of the Morrow series or one of her Garnethill or Paddy Meehan books — are bleak. “Blood, Salt, Water,” however, is so relentless in exploring the despair that blankets Morrow’s corner of Scotland that the suspense plot becomes obscured. Readers eventually learn why Fuentecilla has been under police surveillance (it has something to do with drugs, of course), but not before many other characters and their grim backstories trail through the novel.
“Blood, Salt, Water” is primarily set in the quaint seaside town of Helensburgh, a real town in Scotland that looks like a place Miss Marple might have chosen for holiday. But in Mina’s hands it turns out to be a stagnant pool of rancid ambitions and slimy personalities. Among the latter is Boyd Fraser, a struggling chef who opens the first organic restaurant in town and then finds himself a captive audience for all his customers’ dietary and health complaints. “He’d spotted a gap in the market,” Mina writes. “It didn’t mean he wanted to keep a chart of their colon function.” Also adding to the dismal local color are an underworld kingpin, a tormented hit man scarred by his abusive childhood and an older woman who has mysteriously returned to Helensburgh after spending 20 years in the United States. She seems prim and proper, but that white substance caked on her nostrils tells another story.
Morrow, our guide through this murkiness, has to be one of the most diffident detectives ever to pound a major crime fiction beat. She boasts neither eccentricities (no penchant for the opera or walking the city alone by night); nor catchphrases (Elementary!); nor telltale vulnerabilities — unless you count her love for her 18-month twins, who have marked the shoulders of her work blazers with drool. Instead, Morrow serves as the bulwark of the mundane against the unimaginable. Here she is basking in a bit of downtime with her husband: “She felt the warmth of the nice man next to her, savoured the health of her children. She even had a cup of tea and a biscuit. She found happiness hard to recall most of the time — misery was stickier, puzzling, more intense — but she could be happy in the moment.”
The power of Mina’s writing is such that she can transport readers from placidity to violent pandemonium in the space of a paragraph. The plot of “Blood, Salt, Water” may be a blur, but its disquieting atmosphere lingers long after everything else fades into black.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Denise Mina
Little, Brown. 295 pp. $26