Field of Blood: A Novel
by Denise Mina
Truth and Consequences
A review by Georgie Lewis
Denise Mina broke into the mystery scene with Garnethill, winning the John Creasey Dagger for best first crime novel in 1998, and followed with another two novels that together formed what became known as the Garnethill Trilogy. Set in working-class Glasgow, the three books posit Mina's heroine, Maureen O'Donnell, as someone abused, both sexually and by circumstances stemming from her class. Readers of Garnethill could immediately empathize with this honest and gritty portrait of a young woman whose fate has pushed her to a precipice, and through innate need has acted, if anything, out of survival. The trilogy is so raw and immediate -- sexually explicit and with plentiful use of the vernacular -- and yet each story has all the qualities a discerning mystery reader looks for: rapid pacing, complex psychology, and a twisting, turning, satisfying plot.
Now, Mina announces her next five-part series with the first book, Field of Blood, again set in Glasgow. It's 1981 and the heroine this time is Paddy Meehan, a young copy-girl at the Scottish Daily News, engaged to Sean Ogilvy, a good Catholic boy in a city where Irish Catholics are only just making their way against centuries of bigotry and cruelty. This is the year of the Irish Hunger Strike, and although anti-Catholic sentiment may be outlawed, old beliefs die hard in the Protestant working-class environment in which Paddy lives.
A shocking murder of a three-year-old boy rocks the newsroom, all the more horrific because the arrested would-be murderers are two eleven-year-old boys. And Paddy knows one of them: he is her fiancé's cousin. In a convolution of motives -- part wanting to clear the young boy's name and partly to make a name for herself in the newsroom -- she asks Sean to help her interview the boy. He and his family are appalled at the suggestion, and Paddy is suddenly portrayed by them as a pariah and betrayer.
The period and location Mina chose to set her mystery is fascinating to me: the seventies and eighties, seeing a new generation of women finding their feet in the male-dominated field of newspaper journalism, as well as the aforementioned religious tensions in the closest international city to Belfast, a city that played host to many of the same terrors that shook Northern Ireland at that time. But what truly made this a spellbinding novel was Paddy Meehan. Here is one character I won't forget in a hurry. Mina's fully fleshed out characters impressed me in the Garnethill Trilogy, and Paddy is no exception.
Paddy Meehan is both insider and outsider to a loving, extended, matriarchal family whose pride in their working-class Irish identity binds them close, but with sometimes a suffocating effect. She has a core of strength inside a body she thinks is too fat (for much of the novel she is starting, breaking, and restarting a boiled egg and grapefruit diet) and her lack of belief is a secret to all: "She couldn't tell any one of the people she loved about the black hole at the heart of her faith."
Her ambition is anathema to her family and fiancé, who just want her to settle down with Sean and have babies. In what could almost be termed a coming-of-age story, Paddy's investigation into the death of the toddler creates the chain of events that mark Paddy's growth in many ways. Her movement away from the family hearth, her engagement, the loss of her virginity, and the ways in which she is initiated into the newsroom all could be the stuff of a marvelous Scottish novel in the vein of Iain Banks's Crow Road or Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. Yet Mina juggles both this sensitive story with a truly gripping murder mystery that is as suspenseful and skillful as any that are written by that other Scottish master of crime writing, Ian Rankin.