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Denise Mina: how the literary female detective has changed

Alex Morrow, the female cop at the center of Denise Mina's series, is proof that the literary depiction of woman in police work has come a long way.

By Randy Dotinga / November 28, 2011

"You're not getting information just because you're a woman," Scottish writer Denise Mina says of female detectives in literature. "It's not your superpower anymore. It's just a fact about who you are."

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They just don't make female detectives like they used to. Thank goodness.

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Alex Morrow, the Glasgow cop at the center of Scottish mystery author Denise Mina's series, isn't a bruiser like V. I. Warshawski. She's not a single woman with loner tendencies, à la Kinsey Millhone, nor is she forever fighting against sexism as Jane Tennison did in television's "Prime Suspect."

No, Morrow is polite, married, and even in the family way: "The End of the Wasp Season," just out on bookshelves, reveals that Morrow is pregnant, and not for the first time.

However, Morrow does have something in common with her precursors: She's a complicated woman. As Mina portrays her in "Wasp Season" and "Still Midnight" (the previous book in the series) she's wicked smart, an outsider – though not necessarily because of her gender – and riven by unhappiness.

Mina, who wrote earlier series featuring two other female main characters, has become one of the finest mystery writers of the 21st century. Her deeply perceptive grasp on the inner lives of crooks, cops, journalists, and their families has allowed her books to transcend the detective genre.

In an interview this week, I asked Mina about her experiences with workplace tensions, the changing world of women detectives, and the evolution of the city that her characters call home.
 
 Q: One of my favorite things about your novels is how perfectly you nail the agonies of office politics, whether they're in a police station or a newsroom. Have you had experience with workplace horrors yourself?
 
 A: I was very aware of office politics because I was so baffled by them. So much so goes unsaid. No one says "you're a cheeky so-and-so," no one says "you're so moody," nobody ever confronts anyone else about anything.
 
 But I'm very crass, and I'm very confrontational, and I have a temper. I had to be hyper-vigilant in every office I worked in.
 
 Q: Alex Morrow is very unhappy in the workplace, but she still works to get things done despite the roadblocks the system puts in front of her. Is that common among cops in Scotland?
 
 A: Everyone I know who works for the police has become increasingly disillusioned and bitter.
 
 Q: Glasgow comes across as tremendously dark and sad place in your novels set in the 1980s. The Alex Morrow novels show a more upscale Glasgow with havens for the rich, although there's still plenty of grit to go around. What's different about the city now?
 
 A: Glasgow has changed hugely since I started writing, when it was like Detroit. It was the first city in Europe to regenerate itself through the arts, and there's been huge amount of regeneration.
 
 Q: How have female detectives evolved in fiction over the past couple of decades?
 
 A: At first, they had to act like men, carry guns and punch people – be able to beat people up and engage in fisticuffs. In the mid-1990s, their gender is talked about a lot, and they experienced prejudice.

Now you've reached the point where a woman is just a different type of detective. You're not getting information just because you're a woman; it's not your superpower anymore. It's just a fact about who you are.
 
 Q: Alex Morrow isn't the friendliest of people. Are you attracted to people who have a bit of an attitude?
 
 A: Alex just wants to do her job, and she's very angry.

I like rude women. I'm always mesmerized and admiring of quite-rude women.
 
 Q: Are you a rude woman yourself?
 
 A: I can be very rude, and when I was younger and scary-looking, people were very rude to me. But there's much less now. When you become famous, people are much nicer to you.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.

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