Two Books with a Great Sense of Place
The first is ‘The Red Road’ by Denise Mina, out in paperback on Feb. 13th, 2014.
Author Denise Mina has an instantly recognisable voice in crime fiction: compassionate yet completely unsentimental. She is the mistress of portraying the lost souls of urban poverty and the tough choices they have to make. Rough areas, with buildings ripe for demolition (the Red Road flats in Glasgow are real and are indeed being gradually demolished), decaying morals, corruption at all levels, contrast between rich and poor, the educated and the deprived. This book falls most certainly within the Tartan noir category. It talks about recent history but observed through two different time frames: the night of Diana’s death (because everyone can remember where they were on that night) and the present day. Mina excels at social commentary without preaching, simply by letting her characters talk. And what well-rounded, plausible characters they are, most of them facing heart-breaking dilemmas. I’ve not read previous books in the Alex Morrow series (although I have read other Denise Mina books), but that did not diminish at all my reading experience.
‘The Outcast Dead’ by Elly Griffiths falls more towards the cosy end of the crime fiction spectrum, although it too deals with the harrowing subject of lost or mistreated children. Griffiths’ local area are the flat, isolated Norfolk broads, very rural, traversed by hidden causeways and visited by regular sinister fogs.
Yet the author introduces us to an ostensibly comfortable and comforting community: middle-class, well-educated population, church towers instead of tower blocks, village pubs instead of orphanages. There is a historical dimension here (of course there would be with a forensic anthropologist as the main protagonist) – even slight tinges of the supernatural – but we are operating squarely within a single time frame. I had read the first book in the Ruth Galloway series, but none since, so it did feel a little as though I had not seen a friend for many years and had too much to catch up on. Ruth, however, remains a lovable, no-nonsense every woman heroine (despite her complicated family dynamic).
There are some similarities between these two books, although they probably do address two quite distinct crime fiction audiences (unless you are a greedy omnivorous reader like myself). Families do not necessarily provide a safe haven, and children are all too often the victims: kidnapped, manipulated, possibly killed by the people in whose care they’ve been placed. Outcasts in both cases. And of course both writers are masterful at giving us enough of the local atmosphere to really drive the story forward: the descriptions are always economic, never overdone, with gradual layering of details.
One quibble I do have: given that the books are so different, why are the covers rather similar in colour, lettering and silhouetted imagery? It seems to be a current trend in crime fiction – similar ones have arrived in my post box for the past year or so, from different publishers and for different authors, ranging from Fred Vargas to Alison Bruce. I actually quite like the moodiness and blue is my favourite colour… but diversity is the mother of originality!