Cashmere and murder, The Less Dead, Denise Mina (Review)

Crime novels tend to be light on laughs.

At its worst, it’s a pompous genre. How else can authors convince us of the high stakes and heart-stopping jeopardy if not by being very grave?

In a novel with a serious moral purpose though, Denise Mina is rather funny.

Under pressure to dream up a fictitious non-professional, middle class job title, her flustered doctor protagonist Margo blurts out: “works in a cake shop”. It’s the only thing she can imagine.

The joke — the whole character — could slip into a different novel satirising “cream cashmere crew neck”-wearing folk like her.

But this isn’t a comedy. Here, an adopted doctor — Margo — turns detective after making contact with her birth family and learning of her mother’s murder.

Her ineptitude at lying adds to the fun.

Not having a profession sleuth (or experienced Marple-like amateur) doing the sleuthing though is also difficult. Not ‘problematic’ difficult. Difficult-to-pull-off difficult.

For a start, how do amateurs find the time? Don’t they have jobs to do? Then, why would anyone talk to them? If a stranger with no bona fides turned up on your doorstep to question you about your past, the chances are you’d keep the door closed, unless you were the murdering type, which — in a crime novel — you might be. So those amateurs need to be very, even stupidly, bold too.

The answer to all these questions is normally ‘motivation’. Imagine: someone else has legally seized your house and locked you out, or you fear you’ve murdered someone but forgotten about it after a head injury (to take the circumstances of two relatively recent novels). You’d try pretty hard to work out what was going on.

The device does demand a constant state of jeopardy or desperation from early in a book. Circumstances have to be so terrible the lead character abandons their ordinary life, and ordinary caution, in a search for the truth.

And, above all, the amateur faces a question as difficult and eternal as ‘whodunnit’: why don’t you just call the police?

Cops might be corrupt or stupid or somehow at the heart of a conspiracy of course but on the whole readers wind up wondering why a protagonist doesn’t sit back and let them do their job? If he or she won’t have the police do the big plot-driving investigation (because officers have already reached the wrong conclusion, or aren’t interested) why not at least give them a ring once scary stuff starts happening?

Early in Mina’s book a character thinks Margo might be useful to her because she “is middle class and people will listen to her”. Soon they are making excuses not to contact the police at all: “they’ll think we’re a two-woman time-wasting tag team”; “it’ll take them hours to get here and it’s not that serious”. It is, of course, very serious.

But then maybe I’m a coward, or too trusting. I don’t have the right stuff to be a crime novel sleuth. Just because I’d run to the cops when faced with a mysterious personal crisis it doesn’t mean the rest of the world is populated by wimps.

Or maybe the difficulties of having an amateur investigate are offset by the benefits. Margo’s uncertain exploration of her birth family’s sex work is, thanks to Mina’s light touch, more revealing than a story led by a knowing cop.

The author has done the research. Getting charities and representative groups to talk about their work is easy enough but turning what they, and their clients, say into a convincing narrative is hard. Novels, like journalism, tend to make these accounts glibly grim or — worse — turn their subjects, however troubled, into faultless angels. This book does neither.

Margo is confronted by a woman, Lizzie, who plainly says she’s a prostitute.

“We’re whoors. Can’t say it can ye?”

Big wet owl eyes bore in her. Margo doesn’t know how to be right in this situation. “Is that the word? I don’t know what’s OK and what’s offensive.”

“Oh, words.” Lizzie folds her arms and draws her lips tight, nodding smugly. “Fucking words. Give me a fucking break.”

It’s as neat an illustration of squeamish, tip-toeing-yet-appalled niceness meeting the real world as any 2020 had to offer.

In the wake of this, and having read her procedurals and public-in-peril books, I think it’s time to demand more. My single-handed campaign for a Mina comedy of manners starts here: divided middle class, central belt families staging awkward dinner parties against the backdrop of a second independence referendum perhaps. The anguish and awkwardness of the cashmere-clad beneath the crime novelist’s gaze at a time when casual chit chat has never been so fraught with social risk.

Plenty of laughs I’d have thought, and plenty of scope for a murder.

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The oddness of now. Stories from our lock-downs. Necessarily anonymous.