By Denise Mina
Mulholland/Little, Brown. 374pp. $27
Denise Mina is one of the leading practitioners of what’s called Tartan Noir: the melding of American hard-boiled detective fiction with the atmosphere and local color slang of Scotland. She’s written three separate feminist-inflected mystery series set in Glasgow, including her celebrated Garnethill trilogy. Of late, Mina has also ventured into psychologically rich, stand-alone novels, including “The Long Drop,” a suspense tale rooted in true crime that reimagines the appalling career of serial killer Peter Manuel who terrorized Glasgow in the 1950s.
So much for Mina’s impressive record. Her new suspense novel, “Conviction,” nudges all of those excellent earlier novels into the shade.
Perhaps it’s not even fair to compare Mina’s previous novels to “Conviction” because this latest is so different, it seems to have been written by someone else — some glorious genetically engineered composite of Mina herself along with Daphne du Maurier (for supernatural eeriness), fellow Scot Helen MacInnes (for spy craft), and, especially toward the end, Lisa Scottoline (for spunky woman-in-trouble wry humor).
“Conviction” is spectacular; if you, dear reader, can sanely spread your enjoyment of it out over, say, a week, you’re a more disciplined consumer of suspense fiction than I am. I inhaled this novel in two extended sittings in one day.
The opening disaster of “Conviction” that sets all the subsequent disasters in motion unfolds as follows: It’s early morning in Glasgow and a lightly depressed, upper-middle-class wife and mother of two young girls named Anna McLean pours herself a coffee and settles in to listen to another one of those true-crime podcasts she relishes before the demands of the day take over. About her peculiar podcast addiction, Anna drolly comments that: “There is a warmth and a comfort in hearing about people in worse situations than your own. ... I had not murdered my entire family or killed myself. I hung onto that.”
This fresh podcast is called “Death and the Dana” and it slowly unspools the story of an explosion aboard a luxury yacht (the Dana) that killed a wealthy father and his two young-adult children. The onboard chef, who dramatically quit and disembarked from the yacht only hours before, was convicted of planting the explosives, but many tantazling loose ends remain: For one thing, why did the father, a financier named Leon Parker, insist that the rest of the crew take that evening off? Why did the Dana, long rumored to be haunted, drift into open waters shortly before the explosion? And why did a diver, hired by the late Leon Parker’s insurance company to explore the wreck, find no trace of the diamond necklace that Parker had given to his daughter on that fateful evening? Oh, and one more question: “Why did that same diver perish of apparent fright during that same exploratory dive?”
Anna sits transfixed at her kitchen table, not only because the true-crime story is already so intricate and disturbing, but because — in another life and when she was known by another name — Anna was friends with Leon.
Meanwhile, there’s been a persistent knocking at Anna’s front door. Anna assumes rightly that it’s her best friend Estelle, arriving to go to their Bikram yoga class together. Estelle stands at the door; however, she’s dressed not for exercise but for travel. In fact, Estelle is dressed to run off with Anna’s husband with whom she’s been having an affair.
Lest readers think I’m giving away too much of the plot here, please understand that I’ve merely nodded to some of the events that transpire in the first two chapters of “Conviction.” As much as it is a weird suspense tale in which both ghosts and bullets fly through the air, “Conviction” is a giddy celebration of the art of storytelling itself — from Anna’s “guilty pleasure” podcasts to books and folk tales and alibis and brazen lies.
At one point, Anna recalls a long-ago argument she had with Leon about what she refers to as the “Arabian Nights,” which he’d derided as simple children’s tales. Anna recalls: “I was appalled. I went off on a rant about the “Arabian Nights,” the collective nature of it, how it created a whole world through accretive storytelling: layers of lives lived simultaneously, intersecting. And how it bounced from genre to genre, the stories were funny and brutal and romantic and tragic like life. ... It was produced before stories could only be one thing, before the form was set.”
Clearly, Mina is signaling her own storytelling ambitions here. The marvel is that, through Anna, her suspense-heroine Scheherazade, Mina does indeed spin out what seem like “a thousand and one” stories — each of them spellbinding. The narratives here roam from Scotland to England to Italy to the murky depths far beneath the sea; they change in tone from violent to spooky to slapstick. By the end of the novel, we readers learn, among other things, what really happened aboard the Dana, and who Anna really is, and from whom she’s been hiding all these years. But it’s a testament to Mina’s considerable storytelling gifts that by the end of “Conviction,” I wanted to go right back to the beginning and read all those intertwined tales all over again.
Corrigan, the book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.