Wee Scots lass still sticks the boot in
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.