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