A crime novel with a touch of character

By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2010

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It may be “Still Midnight’’ in Glasgow, as the title of Denise Mina’s latest crime novel suggests, but somewhere in the dark, beleaguered city dawn is showing through. In her seventh noir-ish outing, Mina, winner of the John Creasey Memorial Award for best first crime novel, doesn’t abandon the broken-glass scenarios that have won her a following. For perhaps the first time, however, the Scottish author expresses some optimism – even for the unlikeliest characters.

“Still Midnight’’ opens with a typically grim set up. Two thugs, linked by insecurities and outgrown loyalties, break into a private home, expecting some kind of riches. What they find instead is a middle-class Ugandan-Scottish family with problems of their own, and the interaction between these very realistic characters sets off a chain of mishaps that results in the maiming of a young woman and the kidnapping of her father.

Enter Alex Morrow, a detective on her way down. Like Paddy Meehan, the journalist protagonist of Mina’s last three books, Morrow is on the outs with her colleagues, a loner whose sour attitude exacerbates her problems. For reasons that are only revealed at the book’s end, the competent but discredited Morrow is working under a shadow, her foul mood worsened when she is saddled with a senior officer she doesn’t respect. But despite Morrow’s outlook, and a self-destructive streak that almost derails her investigative instincts, she has an understanding of the victimized family that makes her perfect for the job, a fact the senior officer, Grant Bannerman, comes to realize, even if their superiors don’t. As the two find a way to team up, she convinces him that to rescue the kidnapped patriarch, they must make sense of this odd crime. In the process, Morrow confronts some of her demons and the detectives come to trust each other as they work to uncover a web of low-level crime and degradation, largely linked to the chronic drugs and poverty of Glasgow’s underclass.

Mina’s strength has always been her depiction of her characters’ inner lives. With a background in health care, law, and criminology, she knows — and can show readers — the small choices, the subtle moral nuances that make one sibling a cop, another a gangster. In “Still Midnight,’’ she concentrates on such character studies, keeping the action — the home invasion and kidnapping, their cause and resolution — on a smaller scale than in previous works. Only a few days pass over the course of this book, and despite its grim beginnings, the violence is kept to a minimum. Mina’s attention is instead focused on who these people are, and how they ended up clashing in a middle-class suburb.

By switching among the points of view of each of the major players, she reveals the complexities of both the victims’ and the criminals’ lives, finding an almost common cause in the mix of motives as well as the past and present traumas that drive them all. Lying, hooded, in the back of a van, Aamir, the kidnap victim, flashes back to the terror and humiliation he felt as his family fled Uganda decades earlier. Meanwhile, Pat, one of his captors, juggles his responsibilities to his junkie cousin Malkie and his increasingly decompensating partner, Eddy, as he sees his options running out. And Morrow, whose own family ties are exceedingly complicated, realizes she must dig deep into her own resources if she hopes to bring them all in alive.

It’s a complex set up, and at times Mina sacrifices too much of the action in her decision to showcase the personalities. But the final payoff – an unexpected but believable resolution – is part of this trade: We all have our reasons, Mina seems to say. Therefore, there is hope for us all.

Clea Simon is a Cambridge-based author. Her latest mystery is “Grey Matters.’’


Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown & Co., 352 pp., $24.99