Reviewer: Catriona Troth
What we thought: When Denise Mina’s Gods and Beasts won the 2013 Theakstons Old Peculier crime novel, I have to admit, I had never heard of her. I had fallen in love, that year, with Peter May’s Lewis Man, and was somewhat peeved he didn’t win. And though I’d watched BBC Scotland’s excellent dramatisation of Field of Blood, I hadn’t made the connection with Mina.
So once I discovered that her previous novel, The End of the Wasp Season, had also won the award in 2012, I thought it was high time I found out what the fuss was about. I wasn’t disappointed!
The End of the Wasp Season begins with the isolated home of a young woman being invaded by two schoolboys. Before they reach her bedroom, she manages to dial 999 and the brutal attack that follows is captured on an automatic recording.
This is the classic “two prisoner dilemma” – if two individuals are present at the crime, are they both equally guilty? And if both simply blame the other, can the truth ever be uncovered? Mina makes use of shifting points of view – predominantly that of the investigating officer, Alex Morrow, and Thomas Anderson, one of the two schoolboys – to play with both our sympathies and our suspicions.
Thomas’s father is a wealthy financier who has just committed suicide after losing vast sums of other people’s money – but not before his controlling behaviour has inflicted untold damage on his wife and children. Yet we observe Thomas showing kindness, taking responsibility for his little sister, Ellie. Could he really be capable of murder? Whose words can we trust?
Mina takes many elements familiar to the crime novel and subverts them. The fact that the victim is a sex worker challenges the prejudices of both police and reader. And Mina paints a picture of life in a tower block in a poor area of Glasgow that is a long way from the Benefits Street cliché.
Morrow herself is refreshing take on the fictional police detective – a youngish woman in a ordinarily happy relationship, pregnant now with twins and conscious of how that affects that way she is treated by her colleagues. Mina provides some wonderful descriptions of the moments of contentment that pregnancy delivers, the sensation of the twins moving inside her, the way they respond to stillness with bursts of activity – tender counterpoints to the darkness of the main plot.
The End of the Wasp Season has at its heart a violent and disturbing crime. The unravelling of that crime takes us on a voyage through some dark and twisted psychology. Yet there is a warmth about it too. Mina’s view of all her characters (except, perhaps, the dead financier) is profoundly compassionate. I am definitely going to be working my way through the rest of Mina’s books now.
You’ll enjoy this if you love: Val McDermid, Sheila Bugler
Avoid if you dislike: Stories involving brutal attacks on female victims
Perfect Accompaniment: A large pot of breakfast tea and some rough oatcakes.
Genre: Crime fiction