MARCH 19, 2016
A PLAYWRIGHT, graphic novelist, and crime fiction writer, Denise Mina defies category. But she is perhaps best known for her incisive crime novels, with countless recognitions including induction into the Crime Writers’ Association Hall of Fame. She is the award-winning author of three series and a standalone. Her most recent book, Blood Salt Water, is the fifth in her Alex Morrow series.
In Blood Salt Water, Alex, a detective inspector based in Glasgow, goes to the quiet, Victorian town of Helensburgh to investigate a disappearance and a murder within an insular community simmering with secrets. The setup may sound straightforward, but the book is nuanced, savvy, and filled with signature “aha!” moments that never feel forced or contrived — it’s a novel worthy of the queen of Tartan Noir.
The Guardian has called Mina “uncompromising,” and this is evidenced in Blood Salt Water, where she tells the story from numerous points of view, including the killer’s. In fact, the whodunit is revealed right at the start, and it is the subsequent journey with the hard-boiled but surprisingly compassionate Iain that gives this book its depth. Often, I became so engaged in the narrative taking place in his head that it took me a moment to readjust when the story returned to the murder and police procedural.
I found myself thinking often about Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which is a great classic of American literature, but also a crime novel. Like Dreiser’s book, Blood Salt Water uses a horrific crime to explore the soul of a place. And in doing so, it resides in the sweet spot, at the crossroads of genre and literary fiction.
I talked to Denise Mina about Blood Salt Water, as well as genre-jumping and class distinctions in art, via email.
KIM FAY: Your protagonist Alex Morrow serves as a hinge for many characters in your book. You said in an interview with The Independent, “She was just a trope at the start. I didn’t want to write about a single protagonist.” What advantage did this approach give you for the story you wanted to tell?
DENISE MINA: I love Alex as a character, but after two fairly intense character-led series I felt the protagonist was getting in the way of the kind of story I wanted to write. Crime is a social system, not an aberrant individual, but in character-led novels it always comes down to two individuals.
With the Alex books, I wanted to look at the systemic story, to move to a structure that was basically three or four short stories intersecting. I was trying to look at a more holistic view of a crime: the family of the victim, the family of the perpetrator, the police, the civic effects. In Blood Salt Water, we meet not only the drug dealers but middle-class users, the henchmen, the cops, the families, etc.
In many crime novels, characters need a crime to justify their existence in the story. In the best crime novels, the crime is a byproduct of a character’s nature or who he/she has become at a given point in their lives (The Talented Mr. Ripley comes to mind). Blood Salt Water is in the latter category. These are not people who find themselves batted in new psychological directions by the circumstance of a horrific crime. They are who they are, with or without the crime. I wonder how much time you spend with them before you begin writing?
Very little, really. In fact, I get to know them on the page. This involves an enormous amount of rewriting and darling-killing. I rewrite each book about 40 times and often come across important events that just don’t feel true to the character or the randomness of life. Often by the end, I can copyedit on the phone without the book in front of me because I know the text by heart.
Are transformations important for your characters? Or do you feel that there is an element of trickery in the need to turn a character around in some way by the time the story ends?
I believe in redemption. I think we are all, at all times, seeking to shoehorn life into neat narrative arcs and find redemption. If any life ended at the right time the character would find redemption — it’s an editorial matter. If I die just after finishing a degree/my kids marry/I told my mum I love her, some idiot would make that my redemption. As a writer, sometimes you get to cut a life in half at just the right moment and the character doesn’t have time to become dissatisfied and go in search of another arc ending.
In one of your many memorable scenes, Alex is visiting three crass, unattractive teenage sisters whose mother has died, and she thinks, “They were a nice family, kind to each other in their confusion and sadness. They weren’t just a pool of genetics and mutual misfortune.” This stopped me in my tracks. Through Alex’s affection for these girls, I was able to feel affection for them, and I could feel your affection for many other characters who would be unsavory to most people. Where does this affection for such characters come from?
I actually do love those girls. I think sympathy is oversold as a way to make readers engage with characters. David Peace once said that we don’t fall in love with characters despite their flaws, but because of them. I’ve read books where the protagonist was good at running, policing, cooking, beloved by all, and had big tits. I wanted her to die. I really want to represent the world around me, and sadness at the death of a parent is facile. Grief reactions are so complex and nuanced. If the characters feel real, it’s easy to empathize.
Catharsis often plays a role in crime novels, but you seem pretty sparing with this, for both your characters and your readers. I am wondering about the role that hope plays in your novels.
A lack of tidy resolution is a counter-beat that the reader is often not expecting. Readers are so familiar with crime stories now that they have expectations and if they are all met — the bad guy is got, the cop resolves their personal issues, etc. — it doesn’t feel as if they’ve been on a journey. If you binge-watch box sets, for example The Sopranos, you come to anticipate the beats and it takes the peril out of the storytelling. Compare that to say, Breaking Bad, it’s like Trad Jazz versus Bebop.
In Blood Salt Water, I wanted to look at the life of a henchman, why he became a henchman, how he justifies doing terrible things for his boss. In criminal world terms, he’s a middle manager. It’s really Death of a Salesman for criminals.
You moved often as a child — Paris, London, Bergen, Perth to name a few — but your novels are staunchly Scottish. What draws you to this one place again and again, and particularly the small towns, and why haven’t you ventured out, geographically, with your books?
Yeah, it is weird. I only moved back when I was 19. I still feel like an outsider here, an observer, and it is a mesmerizing place. That disconnect is one of the side effects of an itinerant childhood. But although I only feel Scottish when I go abroad, I’m very Scottish now. Still, in some senses everywhere is universal, sometimes totally universal, sometimes very specific to certain places. Kentucky for example is very, very Scottish. Haitian culture is very confrontational in a way that the West of Scotland is.
In more than one interview you have called yourself a political writer. The Scottish independence referendum plays a strong backdrop role in Blood Salt Water. Politics also play key roles in other of your novels, and you have even written a play, A Drunk Woman Looks at the Thistle, a one-woman drama about national identity. What role do politics play in your books?
All writing is political. Stanley Fish in “There No Such Thing As Free Speech (And It’s A Good Thing Too)” says that there’s no such thing as point of viewlessness. The closer a story is to the status quo, the more politically neutral it looks. Take the classic crime narrative: a cop takes the law into his own hands, he finds irrefutable evidence, and shoots a bad guy because they can’t take it to court. Kind of political.
Narrative is political because available narrative shapes the way we see the world. If there are no stories about you, you can’t even imagine yourself. When I was young all gay characters were victims and all trans characters were murderers.
Today, most writers tend to stay on one path and get pigeonholed into easily identifiable niches (often for marketing’s sake). But you are a renaissance woman. You write novels, plays, and even graphic novels. How did you embark on this eclectic path?
I studied art history, and it’s very striking that women are not remembered. In literature, women’s work is always sidelined or marginalized. The upside of that is that you can pretty much do what you like, try and fail, bust your brand, because no one is looking.
I was in my late 20s and I was training to be a lawyer but gave it up to write. I thought I shouldn’t give up all that security and then try to find it somewhere else. I decided to make work decisions as if I wasn’t worried about my brand.
It helps to live somewhere cheap, send your kids to public school, and not have a gambling addiction.
You have written original graphic novels as well as graphic novels for Stieg Larsson’s internationally bestselling Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. What drew you to graphic novels? What can you do in a graphic novel that you can’t in a traditional novel, and vice versa? Are novels, graphic novels, and plays all facets of the same stone for you, or does each give you a completely different voice?
I could write a whole essay on this question! Graphic novels are such an interesting form to write because there can’t really be an extended internal dialogue that shapes the story, which is very different from prose. You have to show all the narrative working out on the page. It’s incredibly limited: no one can move and the action works best when the reader imagines it in the valleys between the panels. Even within one panel, the images and dialogue have to have an interesting relationship: they can contrast (“I’m not angry” — she looks angry) but they can’t agree (“I’m putting it in the bucket” — she’s putting it in the bucket) or there is no tension. And it’s collaborative so you have to know the artist’s work and anticipate what they can do best, leave room for them to add to the narrative. It’s a gorgeous form.
Plays, for me, again are a completely different form of storytelling. The collaborative nature of them is much more difficult and rewarding. With collaboration you have to make space for people if you want to get the best from them.
I find them all very different and rewarding and limiting in different measure but writing in each form affects the other. My prose is very influenced by comics in particular: I leave out a lot more than I used to because I’ve seen how invested a reader will be if they fill in the spaces themselves.
Genre fiction is rarely given the same respect as literary fiction, and when a crime novel, for example, does cross over, it seems that the literary world claims it as its own. You’re one of the rare authors with one foot planted firmly in each world. You have been a judge for the prestigious Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and are a regular guest on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review and Front Row programs. The Guardian describes you as “one of the most fiercely intelligent of crime writers.” It seems we’re always talking about these labels and distinctions — how do you feel about this whole conversation?
I’ve never read a discussion of the high art/low art distinction, however complex and philosophical, that doesn’t come down to class. If we’re claiming we’re high art, we’re supporting that class system. We’re saying we should have high status as well, because we’re better then sci-fi or romance. We’re not. I don’t believe in class distinctions like that in life or art. We should judge a book not by the marketing category, but by the content of its pages. But while we have those classifications …
I write crime because it’s regarded as low art. I’m not interested in writing books people read as a self-improving obligation. I want people to read because they’re ill, to get through a holiday with people they hate, because they have a long commute. It’s such an intimate, delicious interaction with a reader. The books I read that way are books I adore — they include some very classy literary novels.
Crime novels are read more seriously since I began writing. Comics, too, have changed very dramatically in the past 10 years. If we give up our special genre status, here is what we lose: No one will read us because they deserve a treat. No one will stop reading because they don’t like it. No one will read us because they have flu.