Nothing to do with what I feel sure the characters would call the “poncy” home-furnishings catalogue. Garnethill is a neighborhood in Glasgow, and not a posh one either. I don’t imagine there aren’t a whole lot of posh neighborhoods in Glasgow. Most of the characters in this wonderful mystery don’t seem to do much career-wise, but they’re a fascinating bunch. Denise Mina is very interested in moral ambiguity. Her narrator, Maureen O’Connell, drinks too much, has done a spell in a mental hospital, and has a very soft spot for lame ducks. Her sympathetic brother Liam is a drug dealer, her unsympathetic mother Winnie is an alcoholic and I have never read such a great characterization of a drunk.
Oh, the plot — well, it’s pretty excellent, too. Maureen comes home from a drunken evening and wakes up to find her (married) boyfriend tied up in her living room with his throat slit ear to ear. She is naturally a suspect, especially when it comes to light that Douglas has deposited a lot of money into her bank account. The cops are annoying, and get the wrong end of the stick. Maureen’s own family secrets emerge, and they’re doozies.
Curiously, dark as Garnethill is, I found it more cheerful than Olive Kitteridge. Mina’s ambition is perhaps narrower (from the reader’s guide it becomes clear that she conceives this as a book that will bring attention to issues of alcoholism and sexual abuse). Her redemptive message is not so very different from what Elizabeth Strout suggests, i.e. that we should sieze pleasures where we find them, and focus on kindness and loyalty in small, everyday measures. Maybe I just needed to have it dressed up in an exotic costume.
Apparently there is a whole school of dark Scottish mysteries, with Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, and Manda Scott among the practitioners. The category is called “Tartan Noir.” It might be fun to stack these books against the emerging school of Swedish Noirs coming our way. From what I’ve read of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, the Swedes have the edge on blackness.