The Less Dead by Denise Mina

A tale of two cities…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Two things conspire to make Margo Dunlop decide to seek out her birth mother: the recent death of her adoptive mother, and her own pregnancy which, as a doctor, has led her to worry about the possibility of unknown genetic issues. She’s too late, however – her mother, Susan, died shortly after giving Margo up for adoption. But the counselling service puts her in touch with her mother’s sister, Nikki, and they arrange to meet. Nikki has a strange story to tell, and a request to make. Like Nikki herself, Susan was a street prostitute on the Drag – Glasgow’s red light zone – back in the late1980s, when sex workers were still mostly local women (as opposed to trafficked girls from abroad), driven to the trade by a combination of poverty, lack of opportunity and, often, addiction to drink or drugs. Susan was brutally murdered and left lying naked in the street – one of a spate of murders of prostitutes over the course of a few years. Nikki is convinced the murders were carried out by one man, although the police disagree. The man in question had an alibi for the time of Susan’s murder, but Nikki hopes that Margo will be able to use her privileged position as a doctor to help break the alibi. At first, Margo thinks Nikki is some kind of fantasist, but events soon convince her that there may be some truth in her story…

I’ll start by saying the murder plot and its solution are by far the weakest part of the book. They feel like little more than a vehicle to allow Mina to discuss what clearly interested her far more – the lives of those involved in the sex trade at that time, and how they were treated by a society that preferred to ignore their existence, and by a police force who saw them as third-class citizens. Hence the title – murdered prostitutes were considered “the less dead”, and the investigations into their deaths were perfunctory and under-resourced. The general feeling was that they “asked for it”.

Fortunately, I was also far more interested in that aspect, so the weakness of the murder plot didn’t spoil the book for me. Mina’s knowledge of Glasgow appears to be encyclopaedic and, although she is dealing mostly with a section of society that I knew and still know very little about, the city she describes feels entirely authentic. This was a time of huge change for Glasgow, dragging itself out of the poverty and gang violence of the post-war era and recreating itself as a modern, vibrant cultural centre. (In 1990, just a year after Susan’s murder, Glasgow would become the first British city to be named European City of Culture, and the impact this had on how Glasgow changed, physically, socially and psychologically, cannot be overstated.) Mina’s story straddles this transformation, Susan a product of the old times and Margo of a new, more affluent and perhaps more hopeful future, but still saddled metaphorically as well as literally by the city’s past. Of course there are still major problems of poverty and inequality as in all large cities, and Mina is as clear-sighted about the present as the past. Street prostitution may not be as commonplace, but only because it’s now carried on indoors – still largely driven by addiction, still as prevalent, still as sordid, but better hidden from disapproving eyes.

Denise Mina

Nikki is a wonderful creation – too strong to be pitied or demeaned, but with no attempt to glorify her or the trade she worked in either. The book isn’t done as a dual timeline, so that we learn about the past wholly through the eyes of those in the present who were there at the time. Nikki is around fifty now, a survivor who made it through mostly by her own efforts but helped a little by the general improvement in standards of life over the recent decades. There are enough touches of Glaswegian dialect in her speech to make it authentically distinctive, while causing no problems for a non-Glaswegian reader. Margo’s middle-class upbringing provides a reason for Nikki to explain things about her very different life naturally, as one would to anyone who hadn’t shared one’s life experiences, and this of course means that she explains it to the reader too.

I found Margo and her middle-class friends slightly less well portrayed, but only in comparison. As she tries to work out what happened to the mother she never knew, Margo’s drives around the city and visits to various houses in different parts of it give the reader a real sense of a place of contrasts – wealthy and poor, old and new, respectable and seedy. I wondered, though, if my fascination for this deep gaze at my own city would be shared by people who don’t know it, or if they might find themselves wishing that the drives didn’t last as long and fewer street names and street histories were given. However, this is a far more accurate depiction of Glasgow than in the vast majority of contemporary crime fiction, written, I feel, with unromanticized affection, and the strength of the story of these despised and disregarded women well outweighs the weaknesses in the mystery plot.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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37 thoughts on “The Less Dead by Denise Mina

  1. I’ve not read Mina for a while, but I remember her depictions of Glasgow and social criticism were stronger and more appealing than the crime aspect of her novels. This one looks interesting, so I may give it a try sometime.

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    • I think I read one of her Paddy Meehan books ages ago but don’t really remember it. But I’ve read a few of her recent ones, and the ones set in Glasgow are excellent because she’s so good at depicting it in a realistic way, unlike a lot of other crime writers. I think you’d probably enjoy this one for the same reasons as I did. 😀

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  2. I love the way Mina develops her characters, FictionFan! And she does such an excellent job of depicting place and atmosphere, too. I can see how you’d have been drawn into those aspects of the story. She’s so good at that that I forgive her a plot that isn’t quite as strong as it might be. Odd, isn’t it, how we forgive certain things from certain authors… I feel a blog post coming on. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

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    • She’s really an excellent writer, and it’s so nice to read someone who makes Glasgow sound like the city I actually know for once! So often, the Glasgow in books feels as unfamiliar to me as a book set on Mars… or in America! 😉 Yes, it is interesting how if a writer is especially good at one thing we’re more forgiving of weaknesses in other areas – I look forward to the results of your thought! 😀

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    • She’s been famous over here for ages but I’ve only recently started reading her – she really is excellent when she’s writing about Glasgow and Glaswegians, and it’s always special to read a book in a setting you know! 😀

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  3. It was interesting hearing about the victims of the Yorkshire ripper recently and how the prostitutes lives were considered of less value than his other victims, the less dead – what a horrible and creepy term.

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    • I was thinking about the Yorkshire Ripper case a lot while I was reading this. Not that the plot was similar, but it reminded me of how dismissive we all were at first at the time, because the victims were “only prostitutes”. In retrospect, I think an odd effect of the Ripper case was to gradually make us start seeing sex workers as real people…

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  4. Not sure this would be my cup of tea, FF. While I’d find the descriptions of the people and places interesting, I’d be most disappointed in the author’s failure to craft a believable murder plot and solution!

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    • It’s not so much that the plot itself is unbelievable but that some of the characters do silly things to keep the plot going, if you know what I mean – things I wouldn’t imagine they’d have done in real life. But otherwise the characterisation of the sex workers and the setting are great.

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    • I do think I’m biased a little because it’s so lovely to read a representation of Glasgow that actually feels like the city I know! So many Glasgow-set crime novels don’t feel like my Glasgow at all… 😀

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  5. I might give this one a go. I tried one by Mina years ago and I was very disappointed because she didn’t manage to portray the people of Glasgow as they are with all the patter and wit, and the ambience of the city just wasn’t there. I suppose it’s more difficult for a writer who didn’t actually grow up in the city, but maybe she has managed to soak up the character now.

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    • I always thought her early books sounded too much like Grotty Gritty Glasgow for me – I get fed up with the way it often gets portrayed in crime novels. I’m not sure there was much patter in this one, but I felt her touches of dialect sounded authentic without getting in the way of the flow for non-Glaswegians, and the life of the city back then felt right to me. I’d be interested in what you think of it if you get around to it sometime… 😀

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  6. I, too, would find the exploration of societal issues more interesting than just a murder plot. But, alas, i won’t be adding this to my TBR pile any time soon, as it’s threatening to bury me alive when I roll over in the dark.

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    • I enjoy straightforward murder mysteries, but contemporary crime nearly always focuses on something else, often badly! So I’m always pleased when the author picks an interesting subject and does it well… 😀

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  7. This does sound really interesting though I wonder if you’re right that part of the enjoyment comes from your familiarity with Glasgow. I’ve never read Mina’s work but always thought of it as more hard boiled detective style than this.

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    • I know reading about Glasgow always has an added layer of interest for me, so long as it feels authentic. But Christine from NZ thoroughly enjoyed it too, so it looks like my fears weren’t realised! I think her earlier books were more noir-ish, though I haven’t read them. One day I must backtrack…

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  8. I’m so pleased that you’ve given this a tick of Glaswegian authenticity. I savoured the characters and setting of this story and the sense of authentic concern for the lives she describes. I have read a number of Denise Mina’s books and do like her writing.

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    • I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it – I did wonder if all that Glasgow stuff might be a bit off-putting for people not familiar with the city. But for me, that period of the ’80s is probably when I knew the city best – peak socialising years! Although Mina’s younger than me, she’d have been old enough by 1989 to be out and about herself so that may be why it felt observed rather than researched, if that makes sense.

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  9. I still haven’t read any Denise Mina but I fully intend to, I think I’d like her social commentary mixed with mystery. I’m finding that even when I can solve the mystery, or if it seems unbelievable, I can still enjoy the book. Perhaps I’m mellowing as I grow older? hahah

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  10. The book sounds like a bit of hit and miss with some parts. It’s great that you’ve enjoyed it overall though, that’s the most important thing when reading a book, isn’t it? 🙂

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  11. I have read a couple of Denise Mina books and liked both of them but didn’t continue on with her books. This does sound very good. I don’t mind if the mystery plot is light if there are other parts of the book that make up for it. (But when I get to more Denise Mina, I will try to read from my own TBR pile and wait a while for this one.)

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    • Ha! I always plan to read from my TBR too and then a new release comes along and I can’t resist! I’ve only read a few of her most recent books so one day I’ll have to investigate her back catalogue…

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