Gods and Beasts

Denise Mina's latest spins a web of Glasgow connections and corruption.

Gods and Beasts By Denise Mina Little, Brown 311 pp.

The Scottish writer Denise Mina may be regarded as a crime novelist, but that has never been the whole story. From her first novel, "Garnethill," to her latest, Gods and Beasts, Mina has resisted neat classification. Her fiction, set mainly in Glasgow, is too subtle to be "tartan noir." Her protagonists are often female, but they are too complicated to be heroine sleuths, too difficult to pin down. Paddy Meehan, for example, who first appeared as a watchful girl in "Garnethill," became the prime investigator in "Field of Blood." Now Meehan, an established journalist, is barely glimpsed in "Gods and Beasts," while Detective Sergeant Alex Morrow, familiar from "The End of the Wasp Season," is Mina's chief character.

More confident these days in her hard-won authority, Morrow is as shrewd as ever, whether she is studying a suspect or a fellow cop. "It felt strange to have that double perspective," she reflects as she listens to an anxious, perhaps guilty, colleague, "to have to calculate the gulf between what was said and what was meant" (a Jamesian observation that also sums up what Mina does so well).

"Gods and Beasts" opens, however, in a straightforward way with a crime, or rather its aftermath. A young man sits on a curb, in shock, cradling a toddler, "koala-clamped to his chest," strangers welded together by casual violence. During the armed robbery of a post office, the child's grandfather has been shot to death. Martin Pavel, a bystander, is left holding the boy and replaying the bloody image: "automatic fire, red explosions on the old man's back, the tilt of his torso, the greasy slide."

What follows is equally impressionistic, a series of images ricocheting off a stunned consciousness. Martin registers a paramedic kneeling before him, the hospital where he and the child are "[p]ushed in a canvas wheelchair, through the A&E waiting room, not very clean, not very nice." Then a cubicle: "Time passed. Clocks ticked and trolleys rolled. Nurses shoes squeaked by beyond the curtain." And soon the departure of the boy with his distraught mother, followed by the arrival of DS Alex Morrow and DC Harris, whose questions tether and calm Martin's unruly recollections.

It is gradually apparent that the shooting was coincidental but not random – the gunman and the grandfather seemed to recognize each other – and that Martin himself is a conundrum. An American who sounds Scottish, is well educated, tattooed, and a compulsive runner, Martin is familiar with guns, gifted with accents, and haunted by details – all of which makes him an invaluable yet oddly suspect witness. He is also a stray exotic on the harsh, treacherously shifting terrain that Mina so masterfully depicts.

Populated by criminals of varying rank, by cops and politicians of shaky integrity, and by the battered casualties of violence and neglect, Mina's Glasgow is an intimate place where favor-swapping and palm-greasing blur the line between legal and illegal. Where, indeed, DS Alex Morrow's half brother is the "celebrity thug" Danny McGrath. "[T]hey were part of each other, deeply," Morrow knows. "She became a police officer because Danny was a thug".   

Nothing escapes Morrow's eye, least of all herself, and as Mina deftly joins the overlapping edges of a satisfying plot, her depiction of characters reading each other – and often manipulating each other – is as thrilling as any action scene.

"It was blind panic," Morrow observes when she confronts a petty criminal with evidence that will have him killed unless he informs: "He glared at her, saw she was his only hope of living past January." Upstairs, in her boss's office, she is similarly clear-eyed, noting "two very senior officers sitting with McKechnie … all on first-name, golf-course terms.... They were going to clean out the entire department top to bottom, shave off redundancies that way, smear her if they had to".

Two of Morrow's own officers have been corrupted (the revelation of a third is one of the novel's biggest shocks), and corruption, sexual and venal, is at the heart of a parallel plot revolving around the city's powerful Labour Party leader. "[I]t was all consenting, it was all grown up," Kennie Gallagher protests. "They couldn't accuse him of doing anything except what everyone else wanted to do."

But Kennie knew Brendan Lyons, the murdered grandfather and fellow party member, and now Lyons's family is being threatened. Gangland politics, party politics, Gallagher's marriage, Glasgow's shredded working class; each thread is connected to the single violent act that opens the novel.

With consummate ease and flawless timing, Mina untangles the knot, leaving intact the enmeshed world she has so convincingly created.

Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications.

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