The Last Breath
By Denise Mina
Random House Australia, 2007
352 pages, $32.00 (pb)
In recent times, Scotland has been well served in the field of crime fiction. Ian Rankin's Rebus novels have deservedly been a worldwide success, and some critics have gone as far as comparing Rankin's relationship to contemporary Edinburgh with that of Balzac's to 19th century Paris.
And prior to Rankin, William McIlvanney's three Laidlaw novels put Glasgow firmly on the crime fiction map.
But while Rankin and McIlvanney are (in their different ways) terrific writers, and Rebus and Laidlaw complex and compelling characters, the central figures in these stories are of course members of the police. So it's refreshing that Denise Mina's Paddy Meehan novels, launched in 2005 with The Field of Blood and followed-up in 2006 with The Dead Hour, have a main character that is not a white, male police officer. Paddy Meehan is a woman from a large Catholic working-class family in Glasgow who "hates her body", thinks of herself as a "silly fat girl" consisting of "nothing but guilt and fear and fat", and although irreligious, has a sister who is a nun.
She has the same name as the career safecracker who was the victim of a notorious miscarriage of justice in Scotland in the 1970s: the real Paddy Meehan had been imprisoned for the murder of an elderly woman but was subsequently granted a royal pardon.
Meehan claimed in his autobiography that he had been framed by MI5 for passing on information about the layout of British jails to the Soviet Union. The Paddy of the novel actually meets the real Paddy Meehan and writes a book about him.
The Field of Blood is set in Glasgow in 1981, when Paddy is working as a junior "copyboy" at a Glasgow newspaper, The Dead Hour is set in 1984 when she has moved up the ladder to become a junior reporter, and The Last Breath, the latest in the series, is set in Glasgow in the "city of culture" year of 1990, when Paddy is a successful and well-known columnist.
Each of the books is a gripping read, and Mina does a good job of portraying the police as sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes neither and sometimes occupying the "murky area between criminality and government-licensed corruption". She has an expert feel for the rhythms and nuances of the city, and captures the poverty and desolation of modern urban life in a way that makes the underbelly of Rankin's Edinburgh sometimes seem like a Bearsden tea party.
In addition to telling a thrilling tale, Mina explores questions of religion, class and gender in a way that few other crime writers do.
If you're a fan of Rebus and Laidlaw — or even if you're not — Denise Mina's Paddy Meehan series can be highly recommended.