Probing The Psyche Of Glasgow's Mean Streets Scottish criminologist-turned-crime writer Denise Mina writes about slums and public housing projects — and the unlikely, imperfect characters who make their homes there.
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Probing The Psyche Of Glasgow's Mean Streets

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Probing The Psyche Of Glasgow's Mean Streets

Probing The Psyche Of Glasgow's Mean Streets

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All this week, we'll be visiting some of the world's edgiest cities, as seen through the eyes of crime novelists. It's the latest in our summer reading series Crime in the City. We begin Scotland, but a Scotland that's well off the tourist maps. Vicki Barker has been touring Glasgow's mean streets with the crime writer Denise Mina.

(Soundbite of seagulls)

VICKI BARKER: Wherever you go in Glasgow, seagulls cartwheel high above you, refugees from distant, North Atlantic storms. They call out caustic, airborne editorials on the gentrified city center and on the slums that sprawl around it.

(Soundbite of seagulls)

BARKER: Slums like Easterhouse, a public-housing project hemmed in by highways. As Denise Mina describes it in her novel, "The Dead Hour," it's one of the roughest ghettos in Europe.

Ms. DENISE MINA (Crime Novelist): The most malcontent city-center 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.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BARKER: Left here?

Ms. MINA: Left and then left again at the lights.

BARKER: This is Denise Mina's turf. Her vivid, pacey crime novels are peopled by its small-time criminals, battered women, shifty journalists and failing papers. The heroine of her well-received "Garnethill" trilogy, Maureen O'Donnell, is a psychiatric patient and survivor of sexual abuse whose married lover is found with his throat slit in her living room.

They're characters Mina, a former criminologist and longtime Glasgow resident, knows well.

Ms. MINA: It's very hard to be cut off in Glasgow because it's such a small city. You know, we have the highest rate of per-capita imprisonment, certainly in Britain, maybe in Europe. We have a very high murder rate here. So most people will know someone who's been to prison.

Oh, Liam's house is up here. Actually, go straight on, and I'll show you where Liam lives.

BARKER: Now, Liam doesn't actually exist. He's her protagonist Maureen's devoted brother and a drug dealer.

Ms. MINA: Usually when I'm trying to establish character, I try and find out where they live. So that's Liam's house there, the white one. It's a big, rambling house. And not very long ago, these houses would've brought - quite a lot of them are derelict, and they all have mattresses in the garden, and that's where Liam lives.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

BARKER: And this is the Press Bar, which figures in another cycle of Denise Mina novels. In reality, as in fiction, it's an overwhelmingly male retreat for the hard-drinking hacks who write for the paper next door.

It is here that aspiring reporter Paddy Meehan grapples with sexism and insecurities about her weight and with prejudice about her Catholic background. This is a city where the sectarian divide between Protestant and Catholic runs as deep as it does in Belfast, through all classes of society.

Ms. MINA: If you went for a job interview in a Glasgow law firm, they used to ask you what school you went to. And that was a way of finding out what religion you were.

BARKER: Several of Denise 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. And it was in the 1980s that Denise Mina returned to the city of her birth, a high-school dropout, broke and unemployed.

Ms. MINA: People didn't say what do you do for a living. No one was defined by their jobs, which I loved. In Glasgow, people said do you work - which I thought was very kind.

BARKER: The city itself was crumbling.

Ms. MINA: There were beautiful, neo-Gothic architecture with big bushes growing out of it. It was like the bomb had dropped here. It was like the 80s were a bomb that dropped here, and everyone was just kind of coming, blinking out into the light.

BARKER: At one point on this tour, as if on cue, a hearse overtakes us. Denise Mina laughs. This crime writer laughs a lot.

Ms. MINA: This is Glasgow University. I just got an honorary degree from Glasgow University, and I had to wear around very painful shoes so that I didn't laugh all the way through the ceremony because I felt like an outlaw.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BARKER: We drive past stately red and yellow sandstone houses, regency and art deco relics of Glasgow's past.

Ms. MINA: We could stop here, and we could get out and walk around, maybe.

BARKER: We're at the top of a steep high, lined with three and four-story tenement buildings, many undergoing renovation. This is Garnethill, the title and the setting for Mina's first novel.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

BARKER: Walking through this neighborhood of immigrants, artists and, increasingly, yuppies, Mina says reality is what drove her to fiction.

Ms. MINA: I was doing a Ph.D. in mental illness in female offenders, and I discovered really interesting things about what happens when people are mentally ill, how they're treated afterwards, as if they never had (unintelligible) afterwards. 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.

BARKER: So she created Maureen O'Donnell, the depressive and incest survivor. When the police and even her own family suspect her of her lover's murder, Maureen is forced to hunt for the killer herself. "Garnethill" won a Crime Writers' Association award for best first novel.

Ms. MINA: I think it really chimes with people that she 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.

Unidentified Man: This karaoke?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MINA: He said is this a karaoke?

BARKER: Mina says her characters become so real to her, she once tried to look one of them up on Facebook. She says she prefers her heroes unsung.

Ms. MINA: I think anyone can run into a burning building, but actually living with dignity with schizophrenia for 30 years is breathtakingly brave. Those are the kinds of heroes I want to talk about, is people - ordinary people who do amazing things day to day, but we never really sort of celebrate them.

BARKER: The wind has picked up on Garnethill. Mina takes refuge in a nearby cinema, and the conversation turns to female icons.

A drunk woman is no one's icon. A violent woman is no one's icon. You know, I always wanted to take characters who were disregarded and look at their perspective because those are the sorts of people who are going to find a boyfriend dead in their living room, people with slightly chaotic lives.

Mina is 40, looks 25, listens to heavy-metal music and is proud of her working-class roots. But her readers tend to be professional women in their 50s, with whom Mina's been surprised to discover a profound sense of kinship.

Ms. MINA: I did a reading to four people in L.A., and we could have lived together. We could have set up a commune, and we could hardly speak at the end of it because there was such a connection. We were just sort of patting one another's elbows.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MINA: You know, 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.

BARKER: For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in Glasgow, Scotland.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Denise Mina's latest novel is "Slip of the Knife." Join us tomorrow for our continuing series, Crime in the City. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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