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Tartan Crime

Writers and Readers 2012
Denise Mina: Tartan Noir, Scottish Crime

Toward the end of her session, in response to a question about being a female crime writer, Denise Mina says, ‘Readers are prejudiced against woman writers. Publishers will ask women to use a masculine version of their name or their initials.’ It’s grim, she agrees but she believes that the best thing women writers can do about it is, ‘Write really good books that have women’s names on them.’ The audience breaks into applause. She shrugs, ‘Look, in the UK they’ve just taken away legal aid for women who are beaten. There are more things to worry about than who got the most reviews in the Guardian.’

Rachel Barrowman was the first to suggest I read Denise Mina. We were looking over the Readers and Writers programme and she told me about the Garnethill trilogy. What sold me, was she said they were about Glasgow. When I say this to someone else, they say, ‘They’re so about Glasgow.’ I read The Field of Blood quickly, I loved it. It was what I always hoped crime fiction could be – unsparingly regional and knee deep in social comment.

Mina starts her session by reading a short story called ‘We Are All Waiting’ which she wrote for an Edinburgh Festival publication called ‘Elsewhere’. No one is killed in the short story but it demonstrates the same keen eye for people in place and time that I loved in The Field of Blood. ‘All this really happened,’ she says before she reads it.

Jane Safford starts with place – Mina moved around a lot as a child. Hers was an oil family. Groups of these families, (the partners and children of working class engineers) moved from oil field to oil field, country to country. She recently heard from another oil family child who said to her, ‘You were our home town.’ She returned to Glasgow when she was 19. She says Wellington is a bit like Glasgow, ‘The Glasgow you imagine when you’re really homesick, and a little bit drunk.’ But when she returned to Glasgow it was a ‘melancholy city’.

She was working on an a PhD in the Law department when she started writing the Garnethill trilogy. She wrote 80 pages of the first Garnethill book and sent it to a publisher. ‘I said I was very outgoing in the covering letter,’ she says. ‘I said I did stand-up comedy.’ She talks about the form of the trilogy how it appeals, the Gothic triptych of it. She also says, she thinks it is easy in a longer series to start ‘phoning in’ books. She says that the first book she wrote had two features to it: the crime would be solved in one book but the overarching and equally interesting story of the family would take longer. Stafford asks her about her characters and the trouble they have with family and they talk about how the first fictional female detectives lived alone in apartments and then went to work. Mina talks about how Paddy Meehan’s lost faith seems like a bigger issue but it’s her family dilemma that concerns her most.

This leads to questions about Mina’s family, the amazing power of the matriarch and questions about the ‘cultural brutality’ of Scotland toward breaks in what could be seen as rigid gender roles. Stafford reminds us of the line in The Field of Blood, which is set in the 1980s, where a man is beaten up for using an umbrella. Mina says Glasgow has a vibrant gay scene now and that thing have changed a lot.

Stafford turns next to power. How do Mina’s characters rest power from their situations? Mina explains that what interests her are systems rather than individuals. She’s interested in the ground where ‘justice is not absolute’. She says that each detective must have a super-power there has to be something powerful in them that makes them go on when most of us would walk away. Stafford highlights the children in Mina’s novels which are cast in the roles of both victim and criminal and Mina returns to the idea of systems rather than individuals. She says, child crime is ‘all about us’ talking about a case where a child in the UK who had suffered sustained sexual abuse and neglect killed another child. The judge declared there had been ‘no adult hand in this’. Mina said the conclusion that the child is ‘evil’ is often a lot easier for a society to accept. She says she is interested in what happens when a child criminal grows up and how society integrates them.

Stafford and Mina talk some more about the Paddy Meehan series. Mina remarks she is thrilled she’s waited a while because people found it hard to believe some of the underhand tactics used by the journalists in The Field of Blood. ‘People wouldn’t believe that journalists would interview people without a release.’ But now with the News of World scandal she feels like she could say the journalists flew to the moon and people would believe her. ‘Newspapers don’t report what’s happened,’ she says. ‘They report what’s changed “Innocent child is murdered”. They have to work in binaries,’ she says. ‘Evil versus innocent. Poor versus rich.’

Stafford opens the floor for questions and the first is from a man who has read her comics but not her books. He asks about ‘Hellblazer’ and she also talks a bit about how she got the job of adapting the Larsson trilogy into graphic novels.

And then comes the question about being a female crime writer. Mina talks about being an academic feminist about being part of a group of middle class women who sat around a table week after week trying to make the life of women better. ‘There’s this magazine in Scotland,’ she says, ‘called “Take a Break”. It has these stories about women going through awful things and there is always this photo at the end and it’s sunny and it’s ‘Me Now’. And it occurred to me one day, if you could get into those stories ‘so I took away his key’ or ‘I should have saved $10 a week so I had a get away plan’ that this, could really effect social change’. She’d talked earlier about how her PhD research turned up amazing, helpful things, that she knew would be buried in her thesis and read by hardly anyone and that she thought imagine if I could get this facts into a novel that people would read.
Pip Adam

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Denise Mina’s website
http://www.denisemina.co.uk/

ENDS

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    […] the situation to readerly prejudice. ‘Readers are prejudiced against woman writers,’ she told a session at Writers and Readers week in Wellington, ‘publishers will ask women to use a masculine version of their name or their […]