Blood Salt Water
Orion, 30 July 2015
I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of this book through Netgalley.
You get old, you get scared...
Years ago I went for a day out in Helensburgh with a friend who lived in Glasgow. We got off the train and then walked along an endless A-road, the loch on one side and a steep, forested slope on the other, traffic buzzing by - till we got fed up and went home. We hoped for something - a tearoom, a beach, somewhere to sit - but Helensburgh wasn't ready to oblige.
Denise Mina gets much more out of the place, of course. In this, her 5th DI Alex Morrow novel, the town is conveniently placed - close enough to Glasgow for Morrow to follow her enquiries there, far enough away to be a little... different. There are different gangsters, a different crime - some kind of financial scam, Morrow believes - and a different atmosphere: small time rivalries and family divisions.
Morrow herself is, here, more stable and self assured than in the earlier books, though suffering from "anger management issues" (she's been on a course) and still with her gangster brother causing trouble, even though he's locked away. She and her team are investigating Roxanna Fuentecilla, a mysterious Spanish woman possibly involved in the aformentioned scam. There's rivalry between the Glasgow force and the Met over who should get the seized proceeds - you can almost imagine £ signs in the eyes of the cash-strapped police - so it's unfortunate to say the least when Fuentecilla disappears.
Meanwhile, in the opening pages of the book, a ghastly crime is committed. It's a while before we understand how this links back to Morrow's case: rather, the main impact is to highlight Iain Fraser, small time thug, an awful man in many ways, but it's part of Mina's skill to make you feel for him despite that. Iain's mother is gone, dead while he was away in prison (one of a number of lonely deaths or absences here). She, also, seems to have had a tragic life and as he spirals into chaos following that opening crime Iain hangs on to the first thing she taught him: the best way to remove blood is to use salt water. As with Lady Macbeth, Iain's obsession with his victim and their blood becomes a recurring motif, symbolising his desire to be clean of what he's done ('maybe she wanted him to walk into the salt sea to clean the blood off...') but also his knowledge that he never can be. Already near the edge, he becomes aware over the following days what his crime means and that it has solved nothing, only brought further trouble down on those he loves.
Mina's writing is great: sharp, pacey, knowing, whether describing Morrow grappling with that anger (to her, 'anger was usually just fear with its make-up on' - worth remembering when when we meet Boyd, who seems to be driven by a relentless anger with his cafe, his wife, his child, his dog) or her dealing with a tedious colleague ('She grunted and Thankless took it to mean - really? Do elaborate, you interesting and knowledgeable man') or even surveying the hills ('Morrow was a city child, most familiar with Scottish mountain views from toffee tins, and looking up at the hills still gave her a hankering for caramels'). She is spot on with observation ('She had... far too much make-up for the hour, or indeed any hour, apart from dress-up night at a social club for clowns') and dialogue (a teenager: 'It was,' Marnie agreed 'Like reallycreepy. She's like "HELLO DEAR!") but keeps the story humming along.
The story is less focussed on Morrow and her personal background that some of the previous books, more on her professional life, making her team work, taking account of a father who needs to be away to a son's hospital appointment, dealing with the politics (all those £). The personal stuff is more about Fraser, about unfortunate Boyd and his wife Lucy. Morrow stands to one side, professional, coping: almost as though being rewarded for what she's been through in earlier stories.
It's a tightly wound, compulsive book interweaving Morrow's investigation with the spiralling events in Helensburgh. We can see it all going wrong, but not the cause - that has to wait till almost the last page. Immensely enjoyable, if not always comfortable reading and with an air of galey, salty seaside melancholy. I would thoroughly recommend this book, perhaps for a windy Bank Holiday by the sea.