Probing The Psyche Of Glasgow's Mean Streets

Morning Edition resumes its Crime in the City series.

Denise Mina, primary

In Glasgow, says Denise Mina, "most people know someone who's been to prison." Vicki Barker/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Vicki Barker/NPR

Read an excerpt from Resolution, the final novel in Denise Mina's Garnethill trilogy.

Glasgow

Glasgow's architecture is a visual reminder of the city's more stately days. Vicki Barker/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Vicki Barker/NPR

Wherever you go in Glasgow, seagulls cartwheel high above, calling out caustic, airborne editorials on the gentrified Scottish city center below — and on the slums that sprawl around it.

One of those slums is Easterhouse, a public-housing project hemmed in by highways. As crime writer Denise Mina describes it in her novel, The Dead Hour, it's one of the roughest ghettos in Europe:

The most malcontent city-centre populations had been moved to the satellite estates, a long bus ride away from spontaneous social upheaval. Without the presence of a common enemy, frustration fermented among the people and they began to eat themselves. If Easterhouse had a heraldic shield it would need symbols for drunkenness, medication and despair.

This is Mina's turf. Her vivid, fast-paced crime novels are peopled by its small-time criminals, its battered women and the shifty journalists who toil at its failing papers. They're characters that Mina — a former criminologist and long-time Glasgow resident — knows well.

'Like A Bomb Had Dropped'

Several of Mina's books are set in the 1980s. That's when this city — once as dynamic an economic powerhouse as Chicago — was convulsed by the economic restructuring under Margaret Thatcher. Factories, mines and shipyards closed; thousands of men would never work again. The city itself was crumbling.

"There [was] beautiful, neo-Gothic architecture with big bushes growing out of it," says Mina. "It was like a bomb had dropped."

It was also the decade when Mina — then a broke, unemployed high-school dropout — returned to the city of her birth.

"No one was defined by their jobs, which I loved. In Glasgow, people said: 'DO you work?' — which I thought was very kind," she recalls.

Mina began graduate studies focusing on mental illness in female offenders, but reality eventually drove her to fiction.

"I discovered really interesting things about what happens when people are mentally ill, [and] how they're treated afterwards," she says. "And I thought, 'If I write a Ph.D. thesis about this, no one's ever going to read it. But if I put it in a crime fiction novel, lots of people will read it!'"

Heroism Redefined

So Mina created Maureen O'Donnell, a psychiatric patient and survivor of sexual abuse whose married lover is found with his throat slit in her living room. O'Donnell is the heroine of Mina's Garnethill trilogy. The first book in the series, also called Garnethill, won a Crime Writers' Association award for best first novel.

"I think it really chimed with people that [Maureen] uses rational deduction to find things out, even though she has a history of depression. In fact, people with depression are better at that, because they're less blinkered by hope," says Mina.

Mina's characters become so real to her that she once tried to look one of them up on Facebook. On a recent tour of the city, she pointed to a big rambling house where Liam, Maureen's drug dealing brother, "lives."

Drug dealers, drunks, psychiatric patients — if the heroes and heroines of her books tend to be of the unsung variety, that's deliberate. Anyone can run into a burning building, says Mina, but actually living with dignity with schizophrenia for 30 years is "breathtakingly brave."

"That's the kind of heroes I want to talk about, ordinary people who do amazing things day to day, but we never celebrate them," says Mina. "A drunk woman is no one's icon. A violent woman is no one's icon. I always wanted to take characters who were disregarded and look at their perspective."

Mina is 40 (but looks 25), listens to heavy metal music and is proud of her working-class roots. Her readers, meanwhile, tend to be professional women in their 50s. Despite their differences, the author has been surprised to discover a profound sense of kinship with her fans:

"I did a reading for four people in L.A., and we could have lived together — we could have set up a commune! We could hardly speak at the end of it, there was such a connection. We were just sort of pattin' one another's elbows. And as the books get bigger and bigger, I know those people aren't going to come up and talk to me at the end. But it's one of the nicest things that's ever happened to me in my life, is knowing that they're out there."

Excerpt: 'Resolution'

'Resolution,' by Denise Mina

Chapter One

It was quiet in the grey corridor, high summer shone through the consecutive windows, lighting the lazy dust; window bars cast chilly shadows on to cracked plaster. They were waiting in the corridor-in-between for the door to be opened to the visitors' block. The police were out there. Angus didn't know what they were going to charge him with yet. He guessed the murders and not the rapes. They didn't have any good witnesses for the rapes. A guard at the far end watched them lethargically, standing on one leg.

The sour smell of disinfectant was making Angus's battered sinuses ache again; he was sure he had a fragment of bone stuck in there. He sat forward suddenly, hanging his head between his knees. Henry, the burly nurse sitting next to him, shifted his legs out of splatter range.

'Are you gonnae be sick?' he asked.

'No,' said Angus, bending lower. 'My head hurts.'

Henry grunted. 'Tell them at meds.'

Medication was four hours away. 'Thanks, Henry,' said Angus, 'I will.'

He looked between his legs. The wooden bench was bolted to the wall, the mysterious point of attachment plastered over so that no one could wrench it off and use it as a weapon. Angus had understood the rationale of institutional vigilance during his career as a psychologist. It wasn't until he became a patient that he began to appreciate the psychic impact of static furniture, of lukewarm food and blunt knives. The minor amendments caught his attention every time, making him speculate about the behaviour being deterred.

Henry shifted his weight forward, straining the bench from the wall. He had deodorant on, an acrid, hollow smell. Angus shut his eyes and remembered. It had been so dark outside the window that night. His most searing sensual memory was a light lemony aftershave billowing out towards him as Douglas opened the front door of Maureen O'Donnell's flat. He'd whispered angrily to Angus, asking him what he wanted, what was he doing there. Angus had stepped into the hallway, clicked the door shut behind him and, in a single fluid movement, grabbed Douglas by the hair and pulled him down, kneeing him sharply on the chin, knocking him off his feet. He held on to him by the hair, letting him down slowly to the floor, dropping him quietly. There was so much blood at the end, running off the rim of the chair. Angus had stood at the bedroom door, looking in at her through the crack in the door. Maureen was snoring lightly and it made him smile. Her clothes were on the floor by the bed, a stepped-out-of dress, kicked-off shoes. So much blood. Angus couldn't remember the first cut properly, just the build-up and the outcome. Disappointed, he sighed.

'Don't worry,' said Henry. 'You'll be fine.'

Angus sat upright, making a brave face and nodding.

'They're just going to charge ye,' said Henry. 'They're not even going to question ye today.'

Angus had been here for almost a year. For the first eight months he had been deluded and terrified, hadn't known where he was, what was real or imagined. Reality came in snippets at first and he began quickly to yearn for the alien confusion. The noise and the smell of the hospital were unbearable. Two men on his block were nocturnal, a moaner and an idiot who tapped on the pipes all night. Angus listened for two months, using his experience of crosswords, trying to decipher the message. There was no message, just a rhythm, over and over, as if the man was trying to tell a careful listener that he was still alive and almost sentient.

Henry was picking his nose. It was a straightforward, unceremonious hoick, an index finger rammed up his nostril, searching for congealed mucus. The doctors here picked at their arses, nurses swore, domestic staff stared with open-mouthed amusement at the patients and stopped working when supervisors left the room. It didn't matter how many social conventions they breached, they still felt better than their charges because state mental patients were credited with no opinions, no judgement. They were empty vessels. Angus knew that being in here superseded everything else he had ever been.

No one had thought that he might be familiar with the criminal justice process, not his lawyer, not Dr Heikle, his psychiatrist, not even the police. It astonished him. He had worked in the health service for seventeen years but he'd also done court reports and diversions. They had forgotten his career because he was a patient now, a nothing.

He looked up and down the bleak corridor. Maureen O'Donnell had brought him to this and she was going to get him out.

Chapter Two

Hugh Mcaskill and Joe McEwan sat side by side on Maureen O'Donnell's settee. They were tall men. Joe would have been attractive if he hadn't been such a prick. He had blond hair, turning white in the recent wave of sunshine, a deep tan, and he was always smartly dressed, in chinos and well-fitting shirts and jumpers. When Maureen first met Joe, his tan looked as if he'd just come back from a nice holiday somewhere Mediterranean. In the past year the tan had become more orange and sunbed-ish but it might have been her jaundiced view of him: they had an unhappy history. Hugh looked far more Scottish. His hair was a russet red, flecked with silver at the temples. His eyes were blue and his skin flushed red or white depending on the season. The living room window was pushed right up and the evening was cooler than the day but men were still sweating into their collars.

Usually, Glasgow's weather vacillates between freezing rain and not-so-freezing rain but sometimes, on a five-to-ten-year cycle, the weather turns and the city doesn't know itself. This was such a time. Unconditional sunshine had arrived one week ago. Virulent, fecund plant life had sprung up everywhere: trees and bushes were heavy with deep green leaves, growth appeared on buildings, between cracks in the pavement, on bins. The city burst into life and everyone began to farm their skin. Water-white cheeks and necks withered and puckered with relentless exposure. Casualty departments heaved under the strain of sunburn and heat stroke. Everyone in the unaccustomed city was dressing as if they'd woken up naked in a bush and had to borrow clothes to get home: old women wore young women's summer dresses, vest tops were stretched over belly rolls, short sleeves showed off straps from industrial bras. Every night felt like Friday night and parties went on too long. Fantastic blood-alcohol levels were attained by conscientious individuals. Everyone was dangerously out of character.

Hugh sipped the coffee and Joe lit a super-low-tar cigarette.

'Are ye sure I can't get you anything, Joe?' said Maureen.

'Just sit down,' said Joe impatiently. 'We need to talk to you.'

'I'll just go to the loo,' she said, and Joe rolled his eyes.

Maureen sat on the toilet and held her head in her hands. The timing couldn't have been worse. Her big sister Una was expecting a baby any day now, her father Michael was back in Glasgow, floating around like a toxic cloud, and the dreams and flashbacks were getting worse and worse. When she thought of Michael in her city the air caught in her throat, the light stung her skin and scratched her eyes. She would rather have been dead than share the air with him. And now Joe and Hugh were back up at her door asking about Angus Farrell again.

Joe had never liked her much but he treated her with frank contempt now. She'd lied about Angus writing to her from the hospital and had kept all the letters back from them for as long as she could. She couldn't hand over those letters. Angus had written them to make the police think he was insane, to give himself a defence, but she read between the lines and knew that he wasn't. The irrationality was too ordered, too carefully set. Angus had a plan. He'd hinted at what had happened between himself and Maureen in almost every letter, hinted that she had drugged him with acid. If she handed over the letters she'd be damning herself and giving him evidence for an insanity defence. The police had searched her house, got hold of them anyway and Joe had loathed her ever since. However much she tried to convince herself that it didn't matter because she didn't like him either, it was hard to be in his company.

She dug her nails into her scalp, deep into the skin, promising herself a cigarette if she went back into the living room. She stood up and flushed the toilet for authenticity, lifting the lid so it was loud enough for Joe and Hugh to hear.

They had their elbows on their knees, their ankles crossed, mirroring one another.

'This place looks pretty empty,' said Joe, glancing around the sparse living room. 'Are you moving?'

'No,' she said, sitting cross-legged on the floor. 'I'm just chucking stuff out.'

She was emptying the room gradually and had recently given away all her precious books and chucked out the broken video. The books were a big step. She wasn't sure why she was doing it, but the house felt better without the clutter. She felt as if she was stripping the set, getting ready to leave with no idea of where she was moving to.

Joe looked at the far wall. 'Where's all the books?'

She shrugged and lit a cigarette. 'I gave them away to a charity shop.'

'If you're moving you need to tell us.'

'I'm not moving, Joe.'

'We need to get in touch with ye.'

'I'm not moving, Joe.'

A man with the merest smattering of manners would have let it go at that but Joe didn't care if he offended or bored or annoyed her. 'You look as if you're moving.'

Maureen sighed and shrugged helplessly. Hugh reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a notebook. Joe was looking unhappily around the room, at the portable television balanced on a kitchen chair and the blood-stained floorboards. 'Ye might have painted over that,' he said, flinching.

Maureen looked at the bloody mess. It was a flattened stain, squashed out of shape because the carpet had been over it when Douglas, her boyfriend, was murdered. She looked back at Joe. 'Are you an interior decorator now?'

'Maureen,' said Hugh, butting in before they got started, 'we need to ask you some questions about Angus Farrell.'

Excerpted from Resolution, by Denise Mina. Copyright © 2001 by Denise Mina. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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