Sunday, November 8, 2015

Field of Blood by Denise Mina (A Paddy Meehan mystery)

Denise Mina, as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of her work, certainly falls on the darker side of the spectrum in terms of setting, characters (even protagonists) and stories. The residents of Mina's Glasgow are often flawed in ways we can all recognize, if not relate to, and usually struggle to keep their head above water as they deal with circumstances of ethnicity, geography and, usually, class.

To read a Denise Mina novel is to see the world reflected in a brutally objective, but always compelling and artfully executed, mirror.

This would make for dreary reading were it not for her deadly wit, strangely reminiscent of Jane Austen in its often cynical social commentary.

In Field of Blood, the first installment of the Paddy Meehan series, Mina’s gift for showing how social mores and family ties ultimately control us all are in fine form, though there is less humor.

Paddy Meehan, A Glasgow native named after a real-life man wrongly convicted of murder and ultimately redeemed by the dogged work of an enterprising journalist, is a copyboy determined to become a journalist herself.

That backdrop alone – a Glasgow press room in early 1980s, when no women need apply and reporters openly drink on shift at the pub next door, long before print’s quick demise under the monolithic internet is even a speculative thought– makes for great reading in and of itself. Mina does not disappoint in who she populates the newsroom with either, as always maintaining wonderfully diverse voices for each characters (in a Mina novel, characters never sound the same, even when they're from the same neighborhood or SES). 

Still, readers of her Garnett Hill trilogy may feel, as I did, that there is something a bit rawer and less sophisticated in Mina’s writing in this book, and I wondered as I read this book if this wasn’t one of her earlier works.

Which isn't to say, in any way, one shouldn't read it. It is not to be missed. The brutal torture and murder of a toddler by two young boys is par for the course in terms of a dark subject matter. Moreover, this is one of the first book I have ever read where I was truly disturbed and unsettled within the first few pages, and I have read quite a bit of both true crime, crime reporting and fictional crime. But this murder lingered for reasons I won't say as it that would be a rather obnoxious spoiler.

For Paddy, the murder ultimately forces her to explore her ambition, her morals, her strengths and even her faith and family ties. The answers are sometimes messy, sometimes cruelly clear-cut, but all the more satisfying for that.  

American readers, myself included, may need to brush up on the social unrest in Scotland during 1981 between Catholics and Protestants and a worker’s movement, but it is not essential to be versed in these things to understand or enjoy this book. Mina, as always, will show you, whether you’re ready or not.

Before ending this review, it's worth adding a side note. Another thing that struck me about this book is that Paddy is a woman who is overweight and, naturally, trying to lose weight. As a woman who has struggled with her weight for her entire life, I have never read a more true account of what it is like to have the all-pervasive, ever-present internal dialogue of what want has/did/didn’t/shouldn’t have/will/won’t eat, each and every day. I found it refreshing and startling, and, if I am honest, it actually forced me to acknowledge how much I have allowed my own weight to be tied to my self-worth, and not for the better.

As a writer, I’m amazed at Mina’s ability to do this as, judging from her photos, she has not struggled with her weight. But perhaps she has. At any rate, I admire her courage and, honestly, it made Paddy a much more realistic character in the end. At the very least, it speaks for Mina's technical skill in crafting and maintaining character. 

So, if you’re a fan of Denise Mina to begin with, you’ll enjoy this book, but perhaps not as much as some of her others. For a series beginning though, it is a great beginning. I’m so looking forward to getting to know Paddy more in the future.

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