Slip of the Knife
by Denise Mina
Published by Little, Brown and Company
352 pages, 2008
Third Time’s a Charm
Reviewed by M. Wayne Cunningham
Denise Mina, the Glasgow-based author of Slip of the Knife (or The Last Breath, as it was published last year in the UK), has seen herself at times as “a bit of a cheeky cow.” Her Glaswegian and Tartan Noir colleagues, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, have stated their views of her too. Rankin once described Mina as “one of the most exciting writers to have emerged in Britain for years,” and McDermid has referred to her as Scotland’s “Crown Princess of Crime.” Heady accolades, indeed, from two of Scotland’s crime-writing best, but well substantiated from a reading of this third volume in Mina’s planned five-book series about Patricia “Paddy” Meehan, her Glaswegian Irish-Catholic journalist turned sleuth.
Despite her episodes of self-deprecation, Mina (pronounced MY-na) comes well prepared for her pre-eminence among the Tartan Noirists, a group that, besides Rankin and McDermid, also includes Christopher Brookmyre, Allan Guthrie, Manda Scott and Louise Welsh -- all of whom have roots in the works of native-borns such as James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as imports Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Born in East Kilbride, near Glasgow, in 1966, Mina spent her first 18 years traveling with her family, as her engineer father took jobs in the oilfields across 22 European countries. A high-school dropout at 16, she went on to work at a succession of menial jobs, including as a bar maid and as an aide with geriatric and terminal-care patients, from all of which she accumulated stories and insights that would prove valuable in her eventual career as an author. Subsequent studies in law and mental illness among female offenders served as more grist for her story-making mill, and finally resulted in the production of Garnethill, her first crime novel and the 1998 winner of the British Crime Writers’ Association’s New Blood Dagger.
A sample of what was to come in the style and substance of her future fiction, Garnethill was a prime example of Mina’s cheekiness as well, since it was written while she was still attending college on a grant. Beyond that, the novel was the cornerstone for her next couple of books, Exile (2000) and Resolution (2001), both of which featured Maureen O’Donnell, a psychiatric patient and survivor of sexual abuse, with a penchant for getting into trouble. Then came the standalone Sanctum (2002), followed by the first two of her Paddy Meehan novels, The Field of Blood (2005) and The Dead Hour (2006), both of which received critical acclaim.
And now comes, Slip of the Knife, with its similar components of darkness and dour Scottish brooding, extraordinary characterization, an action-oriented plot, psychological obsessions and rants and railings on any number of things, all given the unique Mina stamp of originality -- not a cookie cutter clause among the batch.
Knowing of Mina’s stints as a comic-book writer and graphic novelist, and her passion for Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, it is easy to discern the foundations of the visual, visceral and literary influences that predominate in Slip of the Knife. And while the style here is clear and clean, with fresh and evocative imagery, the substance of this novel is complex and challenging, creating an entertainment for the mind as well as a massage for the emotions.
Mid-40s Paddy Meehan is a reporter with Glasgow’s Daily News, where “[s]he was a name now, drew a big wage ...” She brushes off office talk about her being a lesbian, and is proud as hell of her “vanity car, bought to show the world of men she moved among that she was doing well and had the readies to buy a big motor.” She is also mother-tiger protective of her 6-year-old son, the result of an out-of-wedlock liaison (described in a previous novel) with George Burns, a cop turned stand-up comic, who’s not “a particularly warm father” and “a nightmare to negotiate with,” but “at visiting time, [is] the clay and the mould.” Perpetually rebellious of the Catholic faith on which she turned her back when she was just 7, the still-unwed Paddy lives with her current male partner and pays lip service to Church traditions in order to mollify her mother, who sees her as “a bad girl who made the baby Jesus cry.”
On the job, Meehan liberally curses out and cuts up her male colleagues; and she longs to get back to the hardcore reporting of her earlier days, when she helped solve, in The Field of Blood, the brutal murder of a child and later, in The Dead Hour, the demise of an abused wife. It’s a wish that’s soon granted, when the child murderer from Field of Blood, Callum Ogilvy, now 19 years old and in Paddy’s view “a car crash waiting to happen,” is set to be released from prison -- and to once more become an integral part of this newspaper columnist’s life.
In the primary story here, one of Paddy’s former boyfriends, Terry Hewitt, a globetrotting foreign correspondent, is found murdered -- stripped naked, shot in the head and dumped in a ditch. Paddy, who’s been obsessing about her midlife weight gain, her ex-lovers and the future of her career, feels compelled to solve Terry’s killing -- especially after she sniffs out possible Irish Republican Army involvement and receives a visit from a menacing stranger, “Michael Collins,” who she realizes by the time he leaves her alone, “knew where she lived, what she looked like and ... [that] she had a child.” Fear for herself, her son and her partner escalates rapidly when Paddy discovers a photographer friend of Terry’s suddenly dead of an apparent drug overdose. She suspects -- and a friendly pathologist (“a Mortuary Elf ... young, her skin perfect, her figure unformed, as if she was still waiting for puberty to hit”) confirms -- that the photographer was murdered. But when police refuse to investigate, Paddy determines to dig still deeper for the truth.
Feeding her curiosity is the fact that in his will Terry Hewitt leaves her his countryside domicile, Eriskay House, along with folders and news clips from his travels. Can she find, in all of that, clues to who killed the journalists, and why? And what might a single photograph from the mock-up of a proposed travel book the two victims were writing have to do with it all?
With the subtlety and intensity of a dervish wielding a dentist’s drill, Meehan bores into the lives of the people around her who threaten her serenity. Despite police obstruction and her newspaper editor’s reluctance to assist her, she presses her investigation into the IRA connection to the deaths and the police inaction. As a result she is roughed up, her son is threatened, a tenement is tossed, and a woman is stabbed. While these events transpire, other story lines are woven carefully into Mina’s yarn. Child murderer Ogilvy attempts to reintegrate himself into a society that wants nothing to do with him, his mumbling mantra (“Everything smells the same when it’s burning”) and his bleak, prison-life memories of stealth, stalking and breaking heads with a brick. Paddy’s mother, in the “wizened vigour” of her widowhood, floods her displeasure over her daughter’s wayward ways. And Paddy’s patience is supremely tried by a parish priest, his sermons and his intrusions into the lives of her and her sister, a guilt-ridden nun. In addition, Paddy’s wrath as a mum is unleashed on a track-suited cyclist and his IRA cohorts when the sanctity of her home is invaded.
Even when the reader of Slip of the Knife knows, or at least thinks he or she knows, what will happen next, it is impossible not to read voraciously on in order to discover the meticulously specific details that author Mina is about to reveal. This book’s conclusion, in which Paddy confronts Terry Hewitt’s killer, is a particularly chilling example of how the reader can be snared by the author’s prose. Rewarding, too, are Mina’s descriptions of a casino filled with patrons “willing fate to favour them,” but all the while listening to “the steady rhythm of loss”; a tollbooth that “sat on its little traffic island, all that remained of a medieval prison where witches were hanged and the debtors voted in their own mayor”; and the Glasgow Mortuary with its “windows on either side of a deep doorway like a punched-in nose.” And one can hardly forget the prison, where “[s]mells from the kitchen came through the wall, smells so strong you could lick them from the air. The softness of sponge, sulphurous egg, the warmth of mince, onions.” People too are sharply defined in these pages. Ex-lover George Burns, we’re told, “knocked on the front door like a hungry bailiff with a short temper,” and his wife is described as “blond, tall, and so thin she could have opened letters with her chin.” A newspaper reporter, Mina says, has a face “like a coin purse that had been kicking around an octogenarian’s handbag since the end of the war.” Memorable lines, all.
As with many noir crime novels, Tartan and otherwise, one shouldn’t expect a neatly packaged, all threads tied up, justice meted out, cathartic conclusion in Slip of the Knife -- unless, of course, rough justice and thrumming leitmotif mantras qualify. What one can expect, though, and gets in spades from Denise Mina, is a darkly invigorating story with memorable language, credible characters, a mentally and emotionally stimulating plot, intriguing settings and plenty of thought-provoking family and social interactions. | July 2008
M. Wayne Cunningham is a former community college English instructor and administrator, and once served as the executive director of the Saskatchewan Arts Board. His reviews have appeared in Books in Canada, The Mystery Review, Mystery Readers Journal, The Vancouver Rain Review of Books and in a weekly column he formerly wrote for The Kamloops Daily News. He is a resident of Kamloops, British Columbia.