Tartan Noir. That’s probably the greatest name for a body of crime fiction set in one location. In this case it’s Scotland, where it seems the rain and clouds obscure more than the sky. With the exception of Alexander McCall Smith, I can’t think of a single Scottish crime writer who couldn’t raise goosebumps on a tropical beach.
Denise Mina is a principal member of the clan, with her Garnethill Trilogy, the first three of her books featuring young journalist Paddy Meehan, and now her Alex Morrow stories, of which Still Midnight is the first. All feature damaged but strong women struggling in a world where men have an explicit hold on the power to control their lives.
Alex Morrow is immersed in perhaps the single most male-dominated profession—the police department. Worse still, she’s from the lower classes. Worst of all, she’s hiding her family background: Alex’s dad was a major player in Glasgow’s underworld, and now her half-brother Danny has inherited his position. Alex is able to conceal her connections, but her accent and attitude can’t be hidden.
Alex is called to the scene of a home invasion that ended with the wounding of a teenaged girl and the kidnapping of her father. Although the father keeps a hole-in-the-wall shop, the kidnappers demand ₤2 million—an impossible and suspicious ransom. Plus, there’s a ticklish angle: the family is Muslim, and the first thought of the investigators is that the money may be connected to extremists. Politics rears its ugly head when Alex’s co-worker and competitor is catapulted past her to lead the high-profile case. Despite that, Alex works the overlooked angles, and her basic police procedure starts turning up loose threads.
Morrow’s investigation is punctuated by two other stories. The first, which opens the book, is told from the viewpoint of Pat, the hapless gunman. Although he and his partner Eddy have been hard guys in the past, the home invasion is a far cry from their other crimes. Pat even fancies himself in love with the girl and has visions of meeting and courting her. At the same time, he fears that Eddy’s pent-up rage over the loss of his family will make him commit further violence. The second story is that of Aamir, the kidnapped shopkeeper. A survivor who escaped Idi Amin’s Uganda, Aamir has plenty of time to remember those brutal days, the effort of integrating himself into Scottish society, of raising two boys and a willful girl. He too fears the potential of Eddy’s violence and the reader senses that he is close to resigning himself to die.
Family dominates Still Midnight. Besides Alex’s birth family, a strained relationship with her husband keeps her away from their home. Aamir has withheld the story of his life from his wife and children, but they are keeping secrets from the old man. One is even keeping a secret with Aamir’s help. Pat’s family is deeply involved with the kidnapping, and of course Eddy’s family looms in the background. Alex’s co-worker is well-connected through his father’s own police career, making him a golden boy in the department. The way Mina weaves these family stories together creates the foundation of the mystery, but also deepens the connections between the characters.
Glasgow is also a major character in this story, much as Edinburgh is in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus stories. The dirty little convenience store, the shooting galleries for heroin addicts, the abandoned industrial buildings, and the natural elements where all of these are haphazardly scattered make an appropriate setting for the story. Mina also indulges herself in creating an almost ludicrous hideaway where Eddy and Pat stash Aamir. The place offers a level of comic relief from the rest of the story, while still ringing true. (Trust me, I’ve been in places like the one she describes.) Alex Morrow is like a hardy plant in this atmosphere— deeply rooted but surviving and even thriving. She makes me look forward to reading The End of Wasp Season, the second Alex Morrow mystery.
Check the WRL catalog for Still Midnight