The Murder Room’s Jenny Page reviews crime behemoth Denise Mina’s acclaimed new novel Blood, Salt, Water.
The plot makes you work hard: Blood, Salt, Water is deliciously complex – you’ll need to keep up.
Each Mina novel is a world all its own, and that’s no less the case here. The central character, Iain Fraser, has just killed a woman he knew and who trusted him, on the orders of a local crime lord, and the fallout’s starting to kick in big time. Mina conveys his inner isolation well.
‘Iain scrambled to his feet. He stepped away, hands up, surrendering. No. That was stupid. Shee-lah. Not his mother’s name. Just sounds. From a body. Not Sheila. Shee-lah. Not real. But his lips were damp with her, his airways full of the screaming of her.’
The elements of the novel turn beautifully around the spider’s web tangle that involves the local heavies who control Helensburgh, the sleepy seaside town on the West Coast of Scotland where it’s set, and the criminal outsiders, who think they’ve got everything – and everyone – sewn up.
Boyd Fraser, Iain’s cousin, has returned home to Helensburgh to settle down after fifteen years in London and a loved-up bender of a trip around Europe in a camper van with his wife, Lucy. Iain and Boyd are on different sides of the Fraser family. Iain’s side – Catholic, the old servant class – are avoided by Boyd’s Protestant, middle-class side.
Susan Grierson has come home, too, from the States, to sort out her mother’s house after her death.
The narrative is led by Iain, who is approached by Grierson. She wants some coke, and he gets it for her. She once tried to persuade him to join the scouts. Now she wants drugs.
This is a DI Alex Morrow novel. Morrow has a decent husband, twin boys and a half-brother, Danny, more in than out of prison. Alex and her team have been trying to close in on Roxanna Fuentecilla, a Spanish woman living in Helensburgh who they think might be laundering money, in the guise of an off-the-peg insurance business previously owned by a Helensburgh man now living in Miami.
But Roxanna has vanished. The London Met suspect a wider drugs-smuggling ring.
Paul Tailor, in charge at the Scotland end, is ex-Met, and must not be shown up in front of his old colleagues. (This leads to Morrow and her team christening the operation PINAD – Prove I’m Not A Dick.) It emerges too that if tracking the proceeds outweighs in cost terms what might be recovered, the operation will be considered non-viable and Ms Fuentecilla will stay vanished.
We are three weeks away from the Scottish Referendum, here, and the austerity cuts are being felt all round.
Denise Mina does not see the world in black and white. The lines cannot be drawn for her along more traditional divides – ethnic minority and white; working class and posh; educated and uneducated. It’s more about how easy, or difficult, it is for individuals to keep things hidden.
There is no organised global criminal underworld at work. Helensburgh is where everyone knows your name. It gives the outsiders – wealthy, private family members, friends and their friends who have relocated to places where the usual rules do not apply – the false perspective that using the local criminals for their own ends will be a piece of cake.
But while the plot was what drove me on, there was so much more that kept me caught in these pages.
For a start, it’s lyrical, almost poetic writing, and completely captivating. It’s a bit like reading Virginia Woolf.
The novel is richly textured, with frequent references to the elements in the title: blood, salt and water. This is a seaside town, and we can taste the salt in the air; Iain Fraser has blood under his fingernails and the sea is a constant feature.
Mina’s minor characters are interesting and human. They may only make brief direct appearances, but for Mina they are significant and part of the novel’s weave, far from being walk-on parts.
Mina’s key protagonists – Lachlan Harriot in Sanctum, overweight, unemployed and with nowhere to turn but their nanny when his psychologist wife is brought to trial for murder; ex-psychiatric patient Maureen O’Donnell in Garnethill; Paddy Meehan, the young local reporter who is her family’s sole breadwinner in The Field of Blood; and Boyd Fraser and Iain Fraser in Blood, Salt, Water – seem unlikely heroes, but they grow into themselves as they follow their instinct for the true and the real.
This is what the heavy hitters have reckoned without: that someone will have an undeniable gut feeling for the truth, and won’t let go. Can’t be silenced.
Recently I came across a quote by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: ‘All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident’. I’d say that’s a pretty good description of how a plot unfolds through a crime novel. It rang true for me as I read Blood, Salt, Water.
In this novel, the steady outworking of the truth, witnessed by those who recognise it for what it is, gives you a feeling of transcendence as you read: the blood, salt and water symbols that enrich the process.
Denise Mina is a critically acclaimed Glaswegian crime writer. Her novels include The End of the Wasp Season and Gods and Beasts, both of which won the prestigious Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award in consecutive years. Denise also writes short stories and in 2006 wrote her first play. She is a regular contributor to TV and radio. Find out more at Denise Mina’s website or follow her on Twitter.