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. Garnethill is Mina's debut novel and a fine example of Tartan Noir.
Maureen O'Donnell wakes up one morning to find her therapist boyfriend murdered in the middle of her living room and herself a prime suspect in a murder case. Determined to clear her name, Maureen undertakes her own investigation and learns of a similar murder at a local psychiatric hospital.
She soon uncovers a trail of deception and repressed scandal that could clear her name - or make her the next victim.
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.
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 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. And despite her flaws (and she certainly has them), it’s not hard to be on her side.
There’s a strong element in this novel of family dynamics and dysfunction, too.
This is a Glasgow story and the reader is placed there in a number of ways, including the dialogue. 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 characters are multi-dimensional and the story takes place in a distinctive setting.
About Denise Mina:
Denise Mina was born in Glasgow in 1966. Because of her father's job as an Engineer, the family followed the north sea oil boom of the seventies around Europe.
She left school at sixteen and did a number of poorly paid jobs, including working in a meat factory, as a bar maid, kitchen porter and cook. Eventually she settled in auxiliary nursing for geriatric and terminal care patients. At twenty one she passed exams, got into study Law at Glasgow University and went on to research a PhD thesis at Strathclyde University on the ascription of mental illness to female offenders, teaching criminology and criminal law in the mean time.
Misusing her grant she stayed at home and wrote a novel, 'Garnet Hill' when she was supposed to be studying instead.