In The Spotlight: Denise Mina’s Garnethill

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Modern noir crime fiction has evolved into a thriving and well-regarded sub-genre. One of its best-regarded examples is the work of Denise Mina. A discussion of noir wouldn’t be quite complete without a look at her writing, so today, let’s turn the spotlight on Mina’s debut, Garnethill.

Garnethill begins when ticket-taker Maureen “Mauri” O’Donnell decides to end her eight-month relationship with psychologist Douglas Brady, whom she’s recently found out is married. One day, she goes straight from work to spend a long night of drinking with her friend Leslie and comes home quite a lot the worse for wear. The next morning, O’Donnell wakes up to find Brady’s murdered body in her living room. For a while she’s too dazed to do much of anything, but she finally calls the police, who begin their investigation.

Joe McEwan is assigned to the investigation and it’s not long at all before he begins to suspect that O’Donnell is guilty of the murder. On one hand, he has good reason to think so. The body was found in O’Donnell’s home, and she had just broken up with him. What’s more, she has a history of mental health problems stemming from an awful childhood with an alcoholic mother and a paedophile father. In fact, she’s only a few months out of a stay at the Northern Psychiatric Hospital where her brother Liam took her after a breakdown. On the other, O’Donnell knows that she is not guilty and the more McEwan tries to bully her into confessing to a crime she didn’t commit, the more she dislikes him and doesn’t want to co-operate with him.

O’Donnell’s brother Liam, a drug dealer with a history of his own that he’d rather not make public, is another suspect in the murder. McEwan pursues him just about as vigourously as he does O’Donnell herself, but Liam, too, swears that he is innocent. O’Donnell knows that if she doesn’t find out who really did kill Brady, either she or her brother (possibly both) could be arrested for the crime. So she begins to ask questions. Then there’s another, similar murder. Gradually, it becomes clear that these murders are connected with the Northern Psychiatric Hospital, and that someone connected with the hospital is trying to frame O’Donnell. Bit by bit, and with help from her friend Leslie and her brother Liam, O’Donnell puts the pieces together. In the end, it turns out that the murders have been committed to cover up a terrible secret.

Like most noir stories, Garnethill has some real darkness in it and some very unhappy characters. O’Donnell herself, for instance, is definitely what you’d call a “down and out” character. She comes from a very seriously dysfunctional family, she has a dead-end job and she’s having difficulty picking up the pieces of her life. Her mother Winnie, sisters Una and Marie and brother Liam are all very unhappy in their own ways, too. And then there’s O’Donnell’s friend Leslie. A skilled social worker, she’s seen some of the worst things that people can do to each other, and that’s taken a serious toll on her. The motive for the murders and the story behind them are very dark, too.

And yet, there are some bright threads running through this novel. For instance there’s also a strong theme of loyalty. O’Donnell may not have a successful love life or a well-paid job. But she has strong friendships with Leslie and Liam, both of whom show themselves to be very much on her side. Other characters, too, show themselves to be loyal friends, and in the end, they show just how much they can stand by O’Donnell.

O’Donnell herself also adds a positive note to the story. She drinks too much, she doesn’t take good care of herself and she is emotionally and mentally fragile. But she is a very, very strong character who is honest and intelligent. She and her brother are the only ones who admit that their father is a paedophile, and despite the rejection from the rest of the family, O’Donnell doesn’t cave in to their need to deny the truth. She isn’t afraid to stand up to McEwan’s bullying and when she finds out the truth about the murders, she shows what a strong person she can be. Although this is in many ways a bleak story, we get a sense at the end that O’Donnell will pick up her life and that she can move on. And despite her flaws (and she certainly has them), it’s not hard to be on her side as she tries to do that.

There’s a strong element in this novel of family dynamics and dysfunction, too, as O’Donnell has to cope with her mother’s drinking and denial, her brother’s problems and her sisters’ refusal to accept what happened in their family. And it doesn’t help matters that McEwan delves into the family’s history to try to prove that O’Donnell is mentally fragile enough to have killed Douglas Brady without remembering doing so. We really see just how broken this family is when it becomes clear that several family members would rather implicate O’Donnell in this horrific crime than face the fact that she’s not crazy. Admitting she’s sane would imply that she’s right about the abuse that occurred in the family, and that’s simply too much for the rest of the family to handle. The only member of the family who stands by O’Donnell is Liam.

This is a Glasgow story and the reader is placed there in a number of ways, including the dialogue. Here, for instance, is just a snippet of a visit that O’Donnell makes to Leslie’s home. In this scene, Leslie introduces O’Donnell to a neighbour’s child:


“‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’”


We also get a sense of place from Mina’s descriptions of the setting:


“The light in Scotland is low in the autumn, gracing even the most mundane objects with dramatic chiaroscuro. Deep hard shadows from the tall buildings fell across the streets, litter bins stood on the pavement like war monuments, and pedestrians cast John Wayne showdown shadows as they stood at the traffic lights, waiting to cross the road. They drove west up Bath Street, passing alternately through withering puddles of shade and warming blasts of sunshine, heading up to a drive-through burger place at the poor end of the Maryhill Road.”


There’s no question at all that this novel is a Scottish story.

There’s a strong sense of suspense, not only because of the murder investigation, but also because of the creeping paranoia O’Donnell feels as she realises that she’s been framed, and later as she realises what’s behind the murders. As O’Donnell tries to clear her name and that of her brother, dodge the media, and stay clear of the police, we get a real sense of how frightening it can be to be suspected of a crime.

Garnethill has darkness and violence, but it’s not a gratuitous novel. The solution of the mystery makes sense, and so does the reason for which O’Donnell’s been framed. The characters are multi-dimensional and the story takes place in a distinctive setting. But what’s your view? Have you read Garnethill? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 23 January/Tuesday 24 January – Bad Move –Linwood Barclay

Monday 30 January/Tuesday 31 January – Death of a Cad – M.C. Beaton

Monday 6 February/Tuesday 7 February –  Bad Debts – Peter Temple


Filed under Denise Mina, Garnethill

29 responses to “In The Spotlight: Denise Mina’s Garnethill

  1. kathy d.

    Yes. I’ve read the Garnethill trilogy: Garnethill, Exile and Redemption. Loved it. Wish I had time to reread all of them. Liked the character of Maureen O’Donnell, a gutsy woman.
    One thing about these books is that Glasgow is so well-depicted and the lives of many long-term unemployed and poor people. I felt like I was there. It is definitely a series with a strong sense of place, interesting characters and a plot that quickly moves along.

    • Kathy – Oh, you put that so well! I agree completely that Mina does a very effective job of evoking Glasgow. She’s also painted a sturdy and tough character in Maureen O’Donnell. And yet, O’Donnell is flawed and human enough that we can believe someone like her could exist. We can identify with her. You make a well-taken point too about the way Mina portrays the people of Glasgow. It’s a realistic portrait; it really is.

  2. I haven’t read it but wow, it looks great. The dialogue would take some getting used to but once I got over that, I would love it. Also, the setting would add a sense of noir to it.

    Love the plot and the characterisation in it. I’ll have a look at it.

    • Clarissa – Oh, I think you really would like this quite a lot. It’s a gritty story of a strong, sturdy, tough character. And the plot keeps you wondering without being unfair to the reader.

  3. I agree this is a terrific book – for all the reasons you mention. I love Maureen, which is also my mum’s name and she is pretty feisty too 🙂 I have the last book in the trilogy still to read – am saving it up

    • Bernadette – Isn’t Maureen a great character!? And why am I not surprised that your mum’s feisty? 😉 I don’t blame you for saving up Resolution. It’s always wise to wait for the really good ‘uns until you can savour them…

  4. I’ve not read any Denise Mina, Margot but I know she comes highly recommended. I suspect that she’s one of those writers that when I start reading their books, I will need to read them all.

    • Sarah – She really is talented, and I recommend this one quite a lot. And you’re probably right that if you start this, you’ll want to keep going. If you do choose to read this trilogy, you’ll want to start with this one, because there are spoilers in Exile and Resolution to this one.

  5. This sounds fantastic. I’ll have to see if I can find it at the library. Sadly, my library is what you might call a bit lacking in certain genres (they have two Agatha Christie novels). Although I did find a book by Martin Edwards last week, which I’m pretty sure came as a recommendation from you.

  6. Very nice review, Margot. I read this trilogy years ago and thought I’d re-read it one day, so kept it. Maybe now is the time, as I’d forgotten most of the details!
    Anyone who is new to Denise Mina – I think this trilogy is her best work. She wrote a standalone novel next, Sanctum, which I liked but did not do so well. She writes two series now, but I don’t think they quite match up to this debut trilogy.

    • Maxine – Thanks very much for the kind words :-). And I agree that this trilogy really is excellent. She has written some other good stuff, but this trilogy is hard to beat!

      • I’ve just found this thread – I agree that this is Mina’s best work (followed by the Paddy Meehan series); having lived in Glasgow for 16 years I felt the Garnethill trilogy gave a far more realistic portrayal of the city than many books set there do. Also agree with Maxine; Sanctum is definitely her weakest work.

        • Crimeworm – I’ll admit; I’m no expert on Glasgow. But this series ‘felt’ very authentic to me. I really got a sense of Glasgow in terms of place, of local culture and language. This is a really strong series.

        • Absolutely – the male authors tend to concentrate on the city’s gangster/hardman reputation, and it’s so unrealistic. Mina’s books are about small, desperate – often female lives. There’s a lot of these people. Although I notice, as her work’s progressed, she’s moved further and further from featuring working class protagonists (probably as her own life’s changed!) Caro Ramsay is excellent on Glasgow too, especially the first three. But not quite so gritty as the Garnethill trilogy!

        • Crimeworm – Interesting distinction you make between male and female authors. I do like the way that Mina depicts the lives of ordinary people, working-class or not. She really shows people that ‘the rest of us’ can identify with, and that’s part of what makes her writing come to life. Thanks for mentioning Caro Ramsey too. I must spotlight one of her novels one of these times.

  7. I haven’t read noir for a while…and I miss it! Thanks for your review. 🙂

  8. Jan

    So bizarre – I was just talking about this series with friends at dinner the other night. I love these books to bits and I’m not a big noir person. Must be my Scottish heritage. Och aye!

  9. Patti Abbott

    Have always meant to try Mina. I have one but not from this trilogy.

  10. There is only one thing to add: this series is HORRIBLY ADDICTIVE! Just as well Mina only wrote three, or I´d be ruined 😉 And I don´t even LIKE noir.

  11. Haven’t read this, but will be on the lookout for it. I like the fact that it’s set in Scotland.This is the type of dialect I love listening to in an audio book. Great spotlight.

    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Thanks :-). I’ll bet this is good in the audio version (I didn’t experience it that way). It’s not exactly a joyful and happy read, but it’s an excellent, excellent book with a terrific protagonist.

  12. I own several Denise Mina novels including GARNETHILL. Time to move them higher in the Read Real Soon stack. Your fine review is motivating me to read one of Mina’s novels in the weeks ahead.

    • George – Oh, I do hope you’ll enjoy Mina’s work. It’s gritty and not for those “I’m in the mood for a light read” times. but it’s quite well done.

  13. Pingback: Garnethill by Denise Mina | Ms. Wordopolis Reads

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s