Gods and Beasts, by Denise Mina
Gods and Beasts is the tenth novel from poster child of tartan noir, Denise Mina. Centring on DS Alex Morrow, but featuring a diverse cast of characters, it covers an investigation into a robbery turned murder. A Post Office becomes a scene of carnage as a grandfather is gunned down with an AK47 in front of his young grandson just before Christmas. Morrow heads the investigation, thrusting her into the murky worlds of both politics and organised crime. This is no simple piece of sleuthing though, as Mina uses all Glasgow as her canvas, painting a picture of collusion, corruption and grubby compromise. Gods and Beasts is not just about identifying one guilty party, but about finding one innocent one in Scotland’s grimy metropolis.
In this, her third appearance, DS Morrow is freshly returned to work after the birth of her twins, and balancing motherhood with work. This is by no means chick-lit though: Morrow is a formidable, hard-nosed boss, inspiring a respectful fear among her underlings. Aside from her children, brother Danny also poses problems, being as he is an underworld figure on the periphery of Morrow’s investigation. She is no shrinking violet, but by virtue of her struggles and her compassion, she is thoroughly sympathetic.
Gods and Beasts is not merely a character study though. Mina comments on Scottish politics with lacerating accuracy, marking the rise and fall of the labour movement over the last few decades, and the modern infighting that identity politics brings to the Labour party (as all others, of course). The authenticity is augmented still further by the character of Kenny Gallagher, who bears no small resemblance to one Tommy Sheridan. Mina is spot on in her observations on the media’s role in modern politics: despite the power of his oratory, Gallagher is forced to consider such tiny minutiae as flecks of spittle catching studio light, and whether journalists are sitting close enough to the platform to create the illusion of full attendance. Ultimately, politicians are united by dry doctrine, and tear themselves apart due to petty personal prejudices.
Mina has party politics covered then. Equally impressive though, is her understanding of interpersonal communication. Rare indeed is such powerful skill at describing awkward conversations, in which unspoken histories, grudges and grievances weigh heavily but silent, and where each miniscule raising of an eyebrow is invested with enormous significance. The Gallagher family provide the most impressive example of this, where a conversation about adultery becomes a four-way verbal fencing contest, mentally and psychologically taxing to all its participants.
As with much of the best crime writing, the crime in Gods and Beasts is but one layer of a greater whole. When not tracking down a killer, Mina asks us to contemplate the feasibility of idealism. Can cops stay straight while the villains are prepared to pay far more? Can adults uphold their principles at cost to their loved ones? Exacting moral standards are elusive in Gods and Beasts, and tellingly politician Kenny Gallagher is by no means the most morally corroded character in the book.
Gods and Beasts is subtle, intelligent and thoroughly engaging. It cuts across class divides, and enthusiastically blurs the line between the good guys and the bad guys. This is a stand-out novel from a stand-out star of the genre.