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18 May 2019

Review - Conviction by Denise Mina

Denise Mina
Harvill Secker (Penguin), 16 May 2019
HB, 384pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of Conviction via NetGalley.

I love Denise Mina's books. Just when you think you know what's coming, she wrongfoots you with a move sideways, shifting from crime series to true life based crime to - as here - a chilling standalone psychological thriller.

This was a grabby book - by which I mean a book that grabs you, though it is one you will also want to grab! It's the sort that keeps you sitting up into the small hours just to see what's next. Following a gripping road trip undertaken by two lonely, desperate people who start off hating one other, but each of whom gradually comes to trust and support the other, it's a marvellously convoluted, tricksy read.

"There has to be a reason to tell the truth. I stopped some time ago..."

Anna is the happy mother of two girls, partner to Hamish, a seemingly dull (but rich) Scottish lawyer, and living a quiet life in Glasgow. The most exciting recent event in her life was the campaign for a new laminator at the school. It is clear, as she narrates this story, that there's something a little... odd... about her. She won't travel abroad. There is an anger in her. Hamish resents her habit of getting up early to wander the house alone, and the two are going through relationship counselling. Perhaps a life of cosy domesticity is grinding Anna down?

There are secrets in this book, things Anna has pushed into unswept corners of her mind, people she's hiding from. She knows they must never, never come to light. But there's no reason why they ever should - is there?

Conviction launches on an ordinary day, but an ordinary day when everything goes wrong. Anna's world collapses that morning, just as she's trying to get the kids out to school. There is a knocking, and Anna tries to ignore it but there is something trying to get in, something from her past. There's nothing she can do but run again - accompanied by anorexic musician Fin, who's been shipwrecked by the same storm that left her adrift. Thrown into each others' company, what can the two do but get in a car, bickering, and set off into the Scottish night, still bickering, to solve a notorious mystery, the sinking of luxury yacht the Dana? (And yes, they are still bickering all through that).

Ricocheting between locations - a ghastly tourist trap haggis restaurant, an upmarket Highland hotel, an exclusive French resort and a Venetian slum, to name only a few, while running through a pile of Hamish's cash and dodging assassins, the pair take as their guide a podcast series about the sinking of that yacht, and follow up the leads. In the course of this we learn more about the ghastly events that sent Anna into hiding, about the origins of Fin's anorexia, the notorious Sophie Bukaran - and the truth behind the Dana. The book is strong stuff in places, with references to rape, eating disorders, and to a real sense of mental disintegration. Anna is at times very scary. Some of the events here are told in fragments as she edits out what she can't bear; she drives like a fiend; and all through the book are the warning signs of the danger she and Fin are running towards - even as she imagines she's running from something that not only destroyed her faith in justice but left her at the mercy of baying mobs - in real life, and online.

Anna starts, then, low on trust, and the very gradual thaw between her and Fin (not a sexual thing, it's mush more interesting than that) is a deeply moving theme of this book, even more interesting and enthralling perhaps than the solution to the mystery (although that is itself a complex, twisty and satisfying crime story in its own right). They are very well imagined, well portrayed characters with a lot of depth, a lot of truth to them.

So there's a lot going on in this book, which is never less than deeply, deeply readable, and often brilliant. It's also frequently grimly funny, as with the scene where the pair, drunk on a train, encounter a hitman who telegraphs his intentions through a dark fairytale, or when Anna refers to "the beige uniform of American money"or describes her time working in that hotel for the super-rich (sacked, in the end: she didn't have the "personality for service"). Fin's fame also produces some funny - if frustrating - episodes: it's hard to go under the radar when people keep spotting and Instagramming you.

As you'd expect, Anna is something of an unreliable narrator ("It's an odd out-of-the-way place for odd out-of-the-way people, often incomers pretending to be Scottish. The whole area is awash with fictions. I loved it there.") She has of course edited her own past, giving her unreliability a solid narrative justification - rather than just deriving from an unexplained character quirk. She's few illusions left about life - for example, saying, of men "When [they] talk about a daughter it's often a coded way of saying they are not planning to attack you" or commenting on the less celebrated moments of Andrew Carnegie, often noted for his philanthropy: "It didn't show him ordering Pinkerton men to shoot at strikers... [or] mutilating accidents in smelting plants." Indeed, that last points to a general theme in this book - the ghastliness of the super rich, variously benefiting from loot gathered by Nazi forebears, committing murders to cover up crimes, behaving badly to underpaid staff... or just showing ghastly taste.

This is a pacy read, covering lots of ground - literally, emotionally, and conceptually. At its heart it has - well, lots of heart, in that central relationship between Anna and Fin. Both are damaged, and the book doesn't promise that everything will be or can be "fixed" for them. But they do find something.

Strongly recommended.

For more information about Conviction, see the publisher's website here.

To buy the book, try your local bookshop, including via Hive! Or you can look at Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.

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