Edinburgh International Book Festival: Denise Mina

Review by Bram E. Gieben | 19 Aug 2013
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For Denise Mina, writing crime fiction has always been a political choice. Her novels are deeply suffused with a yearning for social justice; her characters often broken or bowed by societal pressure and prejudice. Describing herself as “an old 80s feminist,” her works are far from polemical, but they are about “outsiders and losers,” something she feels is common to all of the best noir investigators, from Chandler's Marlowe onwards. She started writing crime fiction while completing a PhD about mental illness in female offenders, realising that if she wanted to discuss these issues in a wider forum, crime fiction could get an audience for the subject. “There are so many stories that haven't been told in the mass media,” she says, and this is her mission as a writer – to give voice to the voiceless, and depict the never-depicted.

Her latest novel, Red Road, was inspired by the exploitation and abuse of young girls in Rotherham, over which there was a media furore – but less because these vulnerable girls had been exploited, and more because the majority of the perpetrators happened to be Asian men. This, says Mina, is typical – the victims in these cases are treated as incidental, and unless there is a gruesome, controversial narrative to be explored in terms of the perpetrators, often their exploitation is simply not seen as newsworthy. That is, she says, why she is “amazed and delighted” to see the revelations surrounding Operation Yewtree getting wide press. These abuses go on under our noses, all the time, and all too often we are prepared to ignore them.

Furthermore, her protagonists are not always glamorous, her victims not always tragically beautiful sirens. She is keen to demolish stereotypes and clichés wherever she find them, offering the bleak but pointed opinion that there is “a theme in crime writing – any woman who is sexually attractive gets murdered.” Her plots are drawn from real life sources, often found in the Glaswegian 'name and shame' crime-reporting paper The Digger. She finds the nitty gritty of Digger stories far more interesting than mass media crime reporting, because there “the criminal justice system is only covered insofar as it affects middle-class people.”

And yet, that isn't to say that her novels are 'true crime' – in fact she distrusts research as “a bit of a trap – readers don't care if you got it right.” She did, however, spend hours talking to police early in her career to get a sense of the culture inside the force, and used to work in Glasgow's Ubiquitous Chip, “where all the journalists drank.” These periods of acute observation have inspired her through the years.

She is a great admirer of Scandinavian crime fiction, where politicised plots are “a given.” Here, she believes, “we need to change the dominant narratives.” She is also keen to change the narrative in the debate over independence. She believes the question of Yes or No should be banned for a week, and open discussion encouraged: “This could be a new Enlightenment,” but the “only question anyone asked is are you for or against.” Leaving the stage, Mina is given rapturous applause – the depth of her conviction, not to mention the power of her prose, have earned her a loyal following, and not just among her fellow dyed-in-the-wool feminists. Tough, hard-hitting and brave, her fiction is as magnetic on the page as she is in person.  

Denise Mina appeared at The Edinburgh International Book Festival on 15 Aug. http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/denise-mina-2