Review: the Garnethill trilogy (long post)
Prior to writing her first novel, Denise Mina researched a PhD on the ascription of mental illness to female offenders and taught criminology at Strathclyde University. These roots are very much in evidence throughout what is semi-officially referred to as the Garnethill trilogy, encompassing three books published between 1998 and 2001: Garnethill, Exile and Resolution. (The title refers to a residential area in the centre of Glasgow, most famous for the Glasgow School of Art.)
The central protagonist of the trilogy, Maureen O’Donnell, has not had what you’d call a happy life. As a child, she was abused by her father, culminating in what she later comes to suspect was a rape attack, an event which she blocked out for over a decade and which led to her father disappearing abruptly. Years later, as a History of Art student at Glasgow University, she suffered a nervous breakdown as her repressed memories of the attack resurfaced and was, for a while, institutionalised. However, her attempts to get her family to admit what had happened to her as a child fall on deaf ears, with her alcoholic mother seemingly repressing her own memories and her two sisters flat out refusing to believe Maureen’s version of events. Only her older brother, Liam, who makes a living peddling drugs, stands by her, and as a result the rift that has developed between these two factions of the O’Donnell clan is immense to say the least. At the start of the first novel, Maureen is on the mend. She’s holding down a job in a ticket office, self-sufficient enough to be able to live on her own in a flat at the top of Garnethill, and has recently decided to dump her boyfriend, therapist Douglas Brady, after discovering that he is in fact married. Then, one morning, she wakes up to find Douglas in a chair in her living room with his throat slit.
Oh, and the killer has gone to considerable lengths to make it look like she did it.
Based on the above paragraph, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Maureen has “victim” branded on her forehead. And yet, throughout the trilogy, this is a label she refuses to accept. While the first half of Garnethill adopts the traditional “wrong (wo)man” framework of many a noirish thriller, compelling Maureen to track down the real perpetrator in order to clear her name, this is reasonably quickly dispensed with in favour of having her play amateur detective less out of a sense of self-preservation and more because she’s decided that, after being a victim for most of her life, no-one is going to fuck with her again. Over the course of the three novels, she not only identifies Douglas’ killer and deals with him in her own personal way, but also becomes embroiled in the lives of various other downtrodden individuals, establishing herself as something of a crusader for justice, siding with people who have been spurned by the rest of society. (A common theme, particularly in the first novel, is that those with a history of mental illness are automatically distrusted or considered to be unreliable witnesses, a fact that the book’s villain capitalises on in the cruellest way imaginable.) In doing so, unfortunately, she neglects herself, and by the final instalment in the trilogy she has a drink problem, is barely eating, and clearly plans to take the law into her own hands when she believes another child is at risk from her father. As the book puts it:
‘Sometimes it’s right to put yourself aside,’ she [Maureen] said. ‘It’s not always about a lack of self-esteem or destructive patterns of behaviour. Someon needs to be responsible.’
Sheila sat back in her chair and looked at her. ‘Yes, but it doesn’t need to be you, Maureen. It doesn’t always need to be you.’
What prevents the reader from becoming as depressed as Maureen is that Mina has the sense not to simply write page after page of woe. Yes, the stakes are high and yes, she depicts some of the deepest depravity humanity is capable of (there’s a scene in the third book in which Maureen discovers a video of a now-dead friend being raped by her father and brother which is nauseating to read), but she peppers each chapter with interesting and often amusing observations about human behaviour. A lot of the material is very funny indeed, finding black humour in the most unlikely of situations and often poking fun at the more ridiculous aspects of human behaviour. (There’s a scene in Resolution involving an extremely expensive wedding reception that had me nodding along and saying “Yes, they really are like that.”) All of the characters are larger than life, but never to the extent that they seem unreal. Better still, while the main villains are all rotten to the core, the rest of the roster of characters, good and bad, all have their positive and negative traits. Even Maureen’s mother, a self-obsessed, abusive drunk who doesn’t appear to have done a single kind act for her daughter in her life, is at least pathetic enough to garner a (minute) degree of sympathy. The first book has, for my money, by far the best line-up of characters, although the second does introduce the wonderfully named Kilty Goldfarb, who provides a lot of the much-needed light relief.
It’s ultimately all about Maureen, though, and the eye-opening - not to mention perilous - journey upon which she embarks from the moment she discovers Douglas dead in her flat. All three novels provide a degree of continuity in that each deals with a different chapter in her life, one following on from the other. To a degree, Exile is the odd one out in that it has less of a connection to the overarching narrative of Douglas’ murder, although it does continue to explore the same themes of victimisation and responsibility as its predecessor and sequel, providing a parallel of sorts to Maureen’s own experience in Garnethill via her latest ‘charity case’, the husband of a murdered woman who swears he didn’t do it. Resolution, meanwhile, may in fact be the strongest instalment in the trilogy, although it does take longer to get going than the other two. It does what many concluding chapters to trilogies fail to do, and that is to provide a satisfying sense of closure, albeit without tying up every single loose end.
I don’t often write book reviews, but this series of novels compelled me to break with tradition and actually set down my thoughts on them. Ultimately, it does at times suffer from a tendency to wallow in its own seediness (believe it or not, not every part of Glasgow is festooned with squalor and debauchery), but then, you could argue that Mina is dealing with unpleasant subject matter and is simply applying an expressionistic approach to it. Regardless, it’s a cracking trilogy written in an unflowery and highly readable style. I’m still not sure whether I prefer Mina’s Garnethill trilogy or her more recent Paddy Meehan series (which I’ll probably review once that series reaches its conclusion in, oh, 2012 or thereabouts), but one thing I can be sure of its that her reputation as Glasgow’s best crime novelist is not unwarranted.