As some of my more regular readers know, recently I've been making more of a foray into the swampland that is the mystery genre - and it is a common saying of mine that 10% of mysteries are great, 10% are terrible, and the 80% in the middle are just mediocre.
Garnethill is many things, but mediocre it is not (and neither is it bad). Denise Mina's debut thriller certainly has a few clumsy moments, but none that stopped me from flying through it at about 100 pages a day (this might not seem like much but when you're on the schedule I'm on, it really is).
I don't know what it is about the British Isles and Scotland in particular, but for some reason the best crime writers all seem to come from the same handful of cities. Maybe it's the Gothic castles or windswept moors or bleak, hopeless climate. I couldn't tell you why exactly, but I was more productive than I've ever been in my life the six months I lived in Edinburgh, and it seems to be a common trend.
Mina's Garnethill takes the reader into the dingy, hard-drinking city of Glasgow, and the apartment of Maureen O'Donnell, where her married therapist boyfriend has been tied to a chair in the living room and had his throat cut down to the bone. As soon as the police uncover Maureen's skethcy psychiatric history, she finds herself on the top of the suspect list and struggling to unravel the combined mysteries of who killed Douglas, why they did it, and for what reason he deposited £15,000 in her bank account the day before he died.
Maureen's amateur sleuthing (with the help of her drug-dealing brother and foul-mouthed biker-chick Leslie) leads her around in rapidly shrinking circles until she finds herself face to face with Douglas' murderer. It's a well-written, fast-paced thriller with a sharp wit and a sense of humor, but the real strength of the narrative lies in Mina's dedication to crafting diverse and believable characters. Between Maureen's far off-balance family, a team of out-of-depth police officers and the less-than-admirable echo of Douglas that haunts the apartment, you can't be bored for a minute.
But perhaps what's most worthy of praise is Mina's remarkable ability to handle issues as delicate as rape and familial abuse with a certain kind of finesse. No, she doesn't shy away from the ugliness and the horror of it, but neither does she exploit it for the sake of sensationalism. It's a difficult line to walk, but Mina does it frighteningly well and to great effect.
Of course, no novel is perfect. Garnethill is no exception. Mina's two chief stumbling blocks as a writer seem to be a proclivity for info-dumping and an inability to adhere to a third person close narrative perspective. Scenes are often interrupted by whole paragraphs of exposition and backstory clumsily shoe-horned into the narrative - and while the information is necessary for the reader to have, there would have been more graceful ways to convey it. Similarly, every five chapters or so the reader is unceremoniously yanked out of Maureen's head and shoved into the unfamiliar consciousness of another character. This kind of shifting perspective can be done and can be effective, but in this case it needed to be done more consistently or not at all. The end result in Mina's novel is jarring and uncomfortable.
That being said, these are the sort of mistakes to be expected in a first novel, and not enough to keep me from glancing at the clock each night and muttering, "One more chapter and then I'll go to bed." So if you're in the market for a mystery that doesn't pull cheap tricks or dismiss the necessity of character development, look no further. Garnethill is worth reading, and if it's not enough for you to get your fill, never fear. There are two more books in the series.