Wee Scots lass still sticks the boot in

Cath Ken­neally

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

AS Denise Mina imag­ines her in 1981, in the first book of this se­ries, Paddy Mee­han is 18, green as grass and hob­bled by be­ing born last in a large, tightknit Catholic fam­ily within a sti­flingly claus­tro­pho­bic Glas­gow mi­nor­ity. On the plus side, she doesn’t be­lieve in Je­sus, has a tem­per that gal­vanises her into un­pre­dictable ac­tion and a driv­ing am­bi­tion at a time when girls want­ing ca­reers prompted gen­uine cu­rios­ity.

By the start of The Last Breath , Mee­han has pur­sued a lurch­ing but suc­cess­ful ca­reer in jour­nal­ism, sur­viv­ing com­put­er­i­sa­tion and mass lay- offs, earn­ing her stripes and a de­gree of se­cu­rity. She has stuck her nose into sev­eral nasty cases, in­clud­ing child mur­der, drugs and as­so­ci­ated car­nage, and now two killings that strike close to home and re­ver­ber­ate across con­ti­nents. Equally grip­ping have been the dra­mas in the Mee­han house­hold, where at this point Paddy’s ‘‘ gen­tle wee daddy’’, Con­nor, is newly dead, aged 58.

Mina’s devo­tees, who signed on for life with the ap­pear­ance of her first novel Gar­nethill, have be­come steeped in Mee­han fam­ily lore and as at­tached to the snippy wee hen as to a real sis­ter.

The Paddy of The Last Breath is harder on the sur­face; her fi­nal il­lu­sions about truth set­ting any­one free are tee­ter­ing; fam­ily re­mains the al­ba­tross about her neck but con­sum­ing love for her son has al­most ex­punged her reck­less­ness. The year 1990 has dawned over a Glas­gow pro­moted to Euro­pean City of Cul­ture; the dirty, bomb- sitepit­ted town is tarted up, the Thatcher- led re­ces­sion is past and Paddy has a by­line, her own well- paid rant- col­umn, her first flat and money. Her beloved sis­ter Mary Ann has be­come a nun, her mother Tr­isha is bat­tling menopause and griev­ing for Con, cop­ing with the re­turn home of bat­tered eldest daugh­ter Caro­line and grand­son BC ( Baby Con).

What makes Paddy Mee­han ir­re­sistible is her pow­der- keg qual­ity: strong pas­sions twisted in the coils of fam­ily al­le­giance, self­es­teem weak­ened early by a cul­ture of fe­male self- ef­face­ment, dirty, dark hu­mour alive and well. Mina’s grasp of the psy­chopathol­ogy of ev­ery­day life is match­less. In an ear­lier life she was a lec­turer in crim­i­nal law and crim­i­nol­ogy, pub­lish­ing ex­ten­sively on the med­i­cal­i­sa­tion of de­viant women. This knowl­edge is as deeply sub­sumed as one would wish in her fiction, a qui­etly thrum­ming en­gine.

She doesn’t be­long in a genre; she deals with crime and pun­ish­ment the way great writ­ers do, ex­pos­ing flaws and strengths in fam­ily, so­ci­ety and in­di­vid­u­als inside a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. The Last Breath touches on Bri­tish se­cu­rity, North­ern Ire­land, dou­ble agents and treach­ery: Paddy knows some­thing of th­ese things through an early ob­ses­sion with a ’ 60s male name­sake framed by MI5, along with blood- deep knowl­edge of 400 years of op­pres­sion, passed on by a ‘‘ mother who thinks the po­lice will ar­rest you for be­ing in pos­ses­sion of a potato’’.

In­ad­ver­tently, she draws on her­self and her loved ones the fire of a mer­ci­less man, him­self be­ing played by big­ger fish. But this isn’t a spy novel. It’s an­other bril­liant book from a pro­lific au­thor, dar­ingly plot­ted, full of ac­cu­rate small- scale de­tail, speedy, gasp­ingly funny, rude, raw and poignant as a dag­ger.

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