The Red Road, by Denise Mina

Review published on September 2, 2013.Reviewed by Mike Stafford

At time of writing, Denise Mina is on a hat-trick. She has had two triumphs on the spin in the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, and her new effort ‘The Red Road’ marks her crack at number three.
In 1997, Rose Wilson is 14. The night Princess Diana dies, Rose has already been forced into prostitution by her ‘boyfriend,’ and snaps, committing two brutal murders. For perhaps the first time in her young life though, she gets some of what might be called good fortune – a brilliant defence barrister steps in to help her. Fast forward to 2013, and a trial at which DI Alex Morrow is giving evidence is thrown into confusion when the accused’s fingerprints are found at a scene he couldn’t possibly have been present at. Morrow’s search for an explanation sees her uncovering secrets that powerful people would prefer to see buried.

It would be wrong to call Mina’s work “gritty.” Compared to Mina, what we usually call “gritty” is just a coarse, entertaining distortion of reality, engaging but dismissible. Mina offers the uncomfortable and unvarnished truth. The vulnerable are preyed on by the powerful, abused and destroyed. Mere children are violated and manipulated; it’s the same world we recognise from the six o’clock news, but shorn of autocue euphemism and studio sterility. Instead, we have Mina’s faultless prose, entreating us to see the victims as they are; frail and imperfect. In ‘The Red Road,’ as with her other work, Mina shows us how incredibly complex doing the right thing is. Her protagonist, DI Alex Morrow, is not a crusader. At no point is she clearly confronted with a binary choice between good and bad. In her universe, such choices don’t exist; there is no heroism or gallantry. Doing the right thing is a drudge, it’s awkward and cumbersome, it needs to be weighed up against the concerns of the real world. For Morrow, when the dust settles after she acts according to her conscience, she will still have her baby twins to look after, still have a career to attend to, still have a roof that needs keeping over her head.

Morrow is one of the strongest series protagonists in the business at the moment. Much of her character is unspoken; there is the internal Morrow and the external Morrow. Internally, she pines for her children while at work, feels compassionate towards her colleagues, and is intimidated by the defendant in court. Outwardly, she is prickly, abrupt, and ever apt to find the wrong words. When the two sides of Morrow are united, the results are phenomenal. During interviews, she is perfectly attuned to the witness, inferring vast amounts from negligible cues, making complex analyses on the twist of a lip. In a modern gender role reversal, she is also seen largely as the provider in her household, with husband Brian in the domestic role, largely protected from the grim world beyond his threshold.

In terms of style, ‘The Red Road’ is characteristically magnificent. Mina can pick a motif and draw both wide and narrow conclusions from it. In ‘End of the Wasp Season’ it was “Stander,” the humiliated teenager with a public erection. In ‘The Red Road,’ it’s Aileen Wuornos’ chickens, prematurely hatched and without hope of life. On one hand, it’s a simple childhood trauma that can’t be forgotten, on the other it’s a comment on the fragility of youth. Mina’s powers of observation are formidable; the significance of accepting a cup of tea is huge, both personally and professionally, and the collective insanity of the immediate post-Diana period is well examined, with apparently stoic characters reduced to absurd sadness.

Mina, put simply, is brilliant. ‘The Red Road’ is reality in HD, coruscating and complex, and if it doesn’t at least make the shortlist at Harrogate next summer, I will eat several proverbial hats.

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