Denise Mina on true crime podcasts and new novel Conviction

Crime writing royalty Denise Mina is back with her new novel Conviction, following Anna as she dives deep into the world of true crime podcasts

Feature by Rebecca Smith | 10 May 2019
  • Denise Mina

(content warning: sexual assault, eating disorders)

Denise Mina, crime writing royalty, can turn her hand to anything. Her latest book Conviction delves into the murky world of true crime obsession, featuring Anna, a regular mum of two living in Glasgow, who has been hiding a troubled past. But when her husband leaves with her best friend, taking the children with them, Anna can do nothing but lose herself in someone else’s story – nestled in a true crime podcast.

Circling a sunken yacht in the Mediterranean with a rich family murdered, Anna realises she knew one of the victims. In a bid to escape her own life, she and an unlikely companion begin to investigate the crime, creating their own true crime podcast along the way.

So, why podcasts? "My previous book The Long Drop was a true crime case and I was listening to true crime podcasts obsessively." Mina had read that "true crime is ethically problematic" which is "something we need to unpack. It's complex. It’s the ethics of people listening to true crime podcasts [by people] who are not trained journalists. It tends to be amateurs.

"I find the whole podcast thing fascinating. No one is making any money, and they are all doing it for the love. People are basically doing it for the love of narrative." 

So, what, in her mind, makes a good podcast? "Some of them really captured my imagination and it’s not the story but the way the story is told. There’s one I really love called Last Podcast on the Left [where comedians and actors focus on all kinds of horrors from serial killers to ghosts] where they are so irreverent. One of them is an actor and he does the murderers’ voices and he makes them sound like absolute idiots. It is a brilliant way to tell these stories that are very compelling. ‘Crime’ is a story with really high stakes, and the true aspect of it adds another level of high stakes."

With the rise of crime podcasts, the idea of someone investigating something themselves isn’t too farfetched. Of the infamous podcast Serial, she says: "Posses formed on Reddit and they did go to the places. I’ve just finished filming a documentary with Frank Skinner where we have re-created Boswell and Johnson's tour of Scotland. They went to Macbeth's castle and the heath nearby and that is true crime tourism. If you strip it back, it is all true crime."

Mina’s characters tend to be multi-faceted with a troubled past and Conviction's protagonist, Anna, is no exception. She is the victim of a crime and has been running from the consequences of it her whole adult life. Anna deals with abuse when she should have been protected. Is Mina often shocked at the way women are treated when they are victims?

"I’m shocked at the way anyone is treated. There needs to be a general acknowledgement that that is not what the law is supposed to do, look after victims. It’s not the police, they always get the blame; it’s juries, its everything. Look at #MeToo. I keep seeing all these people who are exposing themselves through #MeToo, and as quite an old cynical woman who has seen it a lot, people only give a fuck when it suits them. They only care when it chimes with their own agenda."

But things are changing. Anna starts to gain more support – where does this come from? "Anna is doing something people are interested in [through researching the podcast], she’s in alliance with someone powerful, she’s older, and it’s a different time. There is a particular disgust with young women, and I don’t really know where it comes from. Particularly beautiful young women – there is a kind of disgust and people find it hard to humanise. They hate them."

So, does she think what happens to victims, and the support structures around them, is changing enough? "I think it's two steps forward and one step back. I really fear for women coming forward and there isn’t any protection. People always say, 'well done' but then two minutes later they can’t get a job."

Anna prevails over awful things that have happened to her, naming herself a ‘disposable victim’. ‘[We are] one of five. As perennial as love. We go about our business, raising kids, running countries, starting wars, solving crimes.’ Is this a message Mina wanted to get across, that women can be victims but also, in Anna’s words, ‘fucking amazing’?

"Really fucking amazing. You will get women who admit to being sacked or getting done for theft, but very rarely will it be known within a group of people that a woman was raped by six guys when she was 15. Because you’re never getting away from that. It’s such a taint on the victim. It’s also about people who don’t tell their own story. I think that’s so interesting, the idea that you’re being dishonest if you don’t tell your story. It does come from Freudian analysis, that you have to perpetually tell your story."

In contrast to Anna’s hidden past, her companion throughout the novel has a well-known public story. A once successful musician, Fin, her best friend's husband, is suffering from anorexia and faded glamour. "20 years ago you would have chosen drug addiction [for a character like Fin], but it’s about someone who’s not quite there and dealing with something really big and really struggling. I see the consequences of eating disorders and how they operate as an addiction. The way people used to be absent from their life when they were drunk or took drugs, people don’t tend to do that as much. But you do see people with eating problems; it could be compulsive over-eating or anorexia or manic over-exercise. I just thought it was a really interesting thing for a guy to have as well – more and more young men are suffering from anorexia. They suffer silently. There aren’t ways to express yourself. Approaching the world is very difficult for young men now."

Fin is also struggling with a decline in his fame as a musician. "A lot of people who were massive successes when they were younger, maybe they didn’t hold on to the money, they can’t just walk into a bar and get a job now."

Power, money and fame: the characters in the book with these things are not safe, pleasant or particularly happy. Does Mina think people are still tricked into thinking money and power will provide protection and joy?

"Yes, I really do. And I honestly don’t think you can dissuade people from that, unless you get some of them. Then they really realise: it’s a bit shite."

What it all boils down to for Mina is the way you tell a story; be it in a book, a podcast or to your friends. Anna talks about telling stories with the victim who was murdered. These were stories to entertain, told for the shape of them, for the sake of them, for the love of a tale.’ 

When Mina is asked about this line, she says, "People tell stories, but they are really telling you information about themselves. So, when you have conversations that are just exchanges of stories that work really beautifully and nobody is trying to do anything or move in the conversation, it’s just delicious."

Conviction is published via Harvill Secker on 16 May, £14.99