Review 1892: Rizzio

The Scots mystery writer Denise Mina is still concerned with crime, but with this novel, she has turned to historical true crimes. Rizzio is a novella that deals with the 1566 murder of David Rizzio, a musician and favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The murder has been engineered by Lord Lennox and Lord Ruthven, with the aid of Henry Darnley, Mary’s worthless husband. Darnley thinks the shock will cause his hugely pregnant wife to miscarry, most likely causing her to die. Then, he can be king. This is what came of their love match of the year before. To Lennox, Darnley’s father, this outcome would put him in power over his weak son. Lord Ruthven, almost dead already, is the tool of a group of aristocrats about to be dispossessed by parliament.

The novella is mostly description with little dialogue, but it has deep insight into the thoughts and personalities of its characters. It is mostly concerned with the activities of one night, March 9, 1566, in Edinburgh.

It is fast-paced and interesting. Mina has made no attempt to reflect the language of the time, and in fact wrote using modern idioms. Hence, perhaps, the lack of dialogue.

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Review 1659: The Less Dead

When Margo gets in touch with her birth family, her Aunt Nikki, Nikki tells Margo that her mother, Susan, was a prostitute and a junkie who was murdered in an alley at 19. Then she tells Margo she knows who did it and tries to get her to help find evidence. She is asking Margo to break the law and endanger her position as a medical doctor. Margo is horrified by the story and the request and gets away as fast as she can. What she doesn’t know is that meeting Nikki has brought her to the attention of Susan’s murderer. Soon, she has received a threatening letter like the ones Nikki has been getting.

Although set in the gritty neighborhoods of Glasgow like most of Mina’s fiction, The Less Dead is less grim than her earlier work, populated by likable characters such as Margo’s ex-boyfriend Joe and her bestie Lilah, as well as, eventually, Nikki and her friends. It is definitely creepy, though, and a satisfying thriller. Mina always knows how to spin a tale.

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Review 1515: Conviction

Denise Mina’s novels are usually fairly gritty murder mysteries. Conviction, although harrowing in spots, reminded me much more of Catriona McPherson’s cozy thrillers.

When Anna’s husband Hamish dumps her for another woman and takes her children, she realizes there is nothing she can do, because she has been living a secret life. Nine years earlier, a series of horrendous events caused her to run away and assume a new identity. If she were to try to get custody of her girls, she could be found out, and she would be in danger.

While all this is going on, she views a podcast about the death of Leon Parker, who had been her friend years ago. He and his family were killed aboard his yacht. His cook was found guilty of the murders even though she was nowhere near the scene of the crime. Anna becomes determined to find out the truth about Leon, because he was married to Gretchen Teigler, who Anna believes sent killers after her years ago.

This is a fast-paced, well-written chase across Europe to find evidence. Anna is accompanied by Fin Cohen, a rock star and the husband of the woman who ran off with Hamish. Even though there are some tough situations in the novel, it reads more lightly than Mina’s previous work. I liked it a lot.

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Day 1172: The Long Drop

Cover for The Long DropAlthough it too is set in Glasgow, The Long Drop is a departure from Denise Mina’s usual crime series. Instead, it is an account of the crimes and trial of Scotland’s first serial killer, Peter Manuel. In the 1950’s, Manuel was tried and found guilty of the murders of two families and a woman. Although he likely killed other women, a charge against him for the murder of another woman was found not proven.

The novel follows two paths—testimony about the events of a night following the murders in which Manuel met William Watt, a man whose family were Manuel’s victims and who almost certainly paid to have his wife killed, and the actual events. Pretty much everyone in the court is lying.

This novel is billed as a thriller, but it is more of a court procedural. Although it is interesting, it suffers from not having a single character you can feel sympathy for. The wild city of Glasgow in the 1950’s is very atmospheric, however.

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Day 1022: The Girl Who Played with Fire

Cover for The Girl Who Played with FireHaving started this series with the last book, I am finally finishing it with the second. As with the original Larsson trilogy, this graphic novel begins to get into the conspiracy by SAPO to criminalize Lisbeth Salander.

Lisbeth is on vacation on a tropical island after the events of the first novel. Mikael Blomkvist and his magazine are working on an issue about human trafficking with Dag Svensson. Meanwhile, Mr. Bjurman, Lisbeth’s guardian, is trying to figure out a way to control her.

Lisbeth has returned home when Dag Svensson and his girlfriend are found murdered. Also dead is Bjurman, and evidence links Lisbeth to the murders. Lisbeth realizes that all this is pointing back to her past, and she must follow clues while a huge manhunt is going on for her.

Despite being the transitional second novel, this one is engaging, with a lot going on. The art is just excellent. Even though the graphic novels are taken from a hefty series, these writers and artists have managed to condense the Millenium trilogy into an effective series.

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Day 998: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Cover for The Girl with the Dragon TattooA while back I read the third book in the graphic novel series based on Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Series. I found myself a little confused because it had been so long since I read the original books. So, I decided to get the other two.

Of the three original novels, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo works best as a stand-alone. We meet the two protagonists. Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist who has just been found guilty of slandering a powerful businessman, Wennerström, and must face a jail sentence. Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous heroine, has found some evidence that Wennerström is actually guilty and has led Blomkvist on to make allegations he suddenly finds he can’t support so as to ruin him and his magazine.

Blomkvist quits his job on the magazine to save it, but he is offered investigative work by Henrik Vanger, another powerful industrialist. Forty years ago, Vanger’s niece Harriet disappeared during a get-together on the family island and was never found. Henrik assumes that someone in the family killed her, since no one could get on or off the island at the time. In exchange for Mikael’s help, Vanger promises to turn over the goods on Wennerström.

This graphic novel was easy to follow and beautifully illustrated. I find that the genre doesn’t allow for the extreme build-up of suspense that Larsson was able to create in the novels. It could be my imagination, but I also thought some scenes were moved around and the ending was slightly different than the book. I also felt that Lisbeth’s role in the graphic novel was minimized as compared to the novel. Her scenes are more likely to be visual rather than to have dialogues and so go more quickly. Still, this is a rendition of the story that has much to offer.

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Day 964: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Cover for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's NestI did an odd thing here. I saw that the third book of the Millennium Series was out in a graphic novel by Denise Mina, the terrific Scottish mystery writer, so I ordered it without looking for the other two (which I have since bought). So, I am reading and reviewing them out of order.

Thrust like this into the last volume and having not read the original books for several years, I had difficulty at first getting oriented. I especially had some problems with the multitude of characters, not realizing a cast of minor characters appears at the end. I remembered the general plot but not all the subplots. Still, this is not a problem for those who have read the series from the beginning.

Of course, the plot is the finale of the story of Lisbeth Salander, unjustly accused of murder of three people and of attempted murder of her own father, Zala. It is up to Mikael Blomkvist and the staff of Millennium Magazine as well as her other friends to try to help gather the evidence for her trial. In the meantime, the police are searching for her half-brother Niedermann, the scary murderer who can feel no pain.

The art and story line of this graphic novel are really fine, getting a bulky novel right down to its essence. This is the first time I’ve read the graphic novel for a book I’m already familiar with, and it made me contrast the two. I think the one thing a graphic novel loses is all sense of the original’s climactic moments. In particular, I’m thinking of two scenes: the one during the trial when Lisbeth finally speaks and the fight in the factory. The fight boils down several pages of suspenseful writing into a couple of frames. There’s no way to build up suspense similar to that of the novel. Still, my dabbling in this genre has made me feel it is an interesting one as long as I stay away from super heroes, which really bore me.

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Day 505: The Red Road

Cover for The Red RoadIt is 1997. Young Rose Wilson is waiting for her pimp Sammie one night when Pinkie Brown, a young man she knows, asks her to hide a knife for him. Although she has had a crush on him, she suddenly understands he is attempting to use her. She tries to push him away and ends up accidentally stabbing him to death. Terrified about what Sammie will do to her, she attempts to hide from him that she is covered in blood as they drive away from the area. But he finally sees the blood, so she attacks him in panic, killing him. Then she realizes she has nowhere to go and no way to hide her crime, so she sits in the car and waits for the police.

In the present time, Detective Inspector Alex Morrow is set to testify against Michael Brown. He was found guilty years ago of the murder of his older brother Pinkie. Now he is up on weapons charges, as caches of guns with his fingerprints on them were found buried in his back yard. But Alex soon learns something puzzling. Brown’s fingerprints were found at the scene of a murder that happened three days before in an abandoned building on the Red Road, when Brown was in custody. Although Alex is inclined to believe this is some ploy by Brown’s defense, Anton Atholl, she can’t figure out what they have to gain from it. In any case, court is dismissed because of news of the death of another defense attorney, Julius McMillan.

Back in the past, it is Julius McMillan who saves Rose. After Rose admits everything she did, he figures out a way for her to serve minimal time for Sammie’s death, as long as no one connects her to the killing of Pinkie Brown. To save her, he is forced to make a deal with some powerful but unscrupulous men.

Alex’s investigation is taking some unexpected detours, and eventually she figures out that there was a conspiracy to pin Pinkie’s murder on Michael years ago. Michael’s fingerprints were switched for those of the real murderer, who has just killed again. Although Alex begins to realize she will be up against some powerful people, she just can’t let something like that go.

Denise Mina’s mysteries are set in a gritty Glasgow. Alex is an abrasive and stubborn heroine whose career keeps being dead-ended because she insists on going up against corrupt politicians and police. The novels are smart and interesting, with convincingly drawn characters.

Day 377: Gods and Beasts

Cover for Gods and BeastsMartin Pavel is standing behind an old man and a child in the post office waiting to mail Christmas packages when a gunman comes in. The old man pushes the little boy toward Martin and behaves as if he knows the gunman. The gunman forces the old man to assist him in the robbery and then shoots him.

Things are going better for DS Alex Morrow than they have in awhile. She finally admitted her relationship with her criminal half-brother Danny Boyle to her supervisors and has been investigated and cleared of any suspicion of wrong-doing. She also gave birth to twins four months ago and is happy in her marriage. Her habitual anger has stopped simmering below the surface.

Morrow’s team is surprised to find no ties to crime on the part of the victim, Brendan Lyon, a former union organizer. The tattooed Pavel turns out to be a wealthy do-gooder. The police are having a hard time figuring out how Lyon could have known the gunman.

In a parallel story that seems unrelated until the very end of the novel, labor leader Kenny Gallagher, a rock star in politics, can feel the support of his constituency ebbing. His leadership is being challenged, he is being accused of improprieties with a young party member, and his wife wants a divorce.

Alex soon finds that two officers on her team were lured into taking a bribe, and then a third has a sack of cash thrown into his car. As she investigates these incidents, she begins to uncover a web of corruption.

On the home front, she is tentatively exploring normal family relations with Danny. He says he’s retiring from crime, but is he?

I discovered Denise Mina’s gritty crime novels shortly after the publication of her first book. They are unfailingly excellent, with gripping plots, complex characters, and complicated moral dilemmas. Mina’s writing is spare and elegant. You can’t go wrong with her if you have a taste for dark, dramatic crime novels.

Day 268: Still Midnight

Cover for Still MidnightWhen I first started reading this crime novel, I had the feeling it would end badly. However, although it is very complex, it ties up loose ends in a satisfying way.

Alex Morrow is a bitter Glasgow cop who feels she has to compete with her male colleagues, especially with Bannerman, who is favored by her boss. It is her turn to take the next big case, but when an elderly Ugandan man is abducted from his home, the boss gives the case to Bannerman.

We follow the inept, amateurish kidnappers, who have smashed their way into the house demanding a person who has never lived there or been inside. On the other hand, we watch Morrow’s attempts to work on the case without letting Bannerman take the credit for all her breakthroughs.

I have long been a fan of Denise Mina, who has written several gritty series providing us fascinating glimpses of a grim urban Scotland.