Review 1822: Shuggie Bain

Shuggie Bain lives the first five or six years of his life in his grandparents’ flat in Glasgow with parents and older sister Catherine and brother Leek. The family is poor but respectable. His father Shug is a taxi driver, and his mother and grandmother keep a neat house. Shuggie’s mother Agnes is beautiful and always immaculately made up.

Shug is a horrible womanizer, though, and from jealousy Agnes hounds him by making calls to his dispatcher. Then Shug decides they should move to get a fresh start. What he describes as an outdoor paradise turns out to be a tiny shack next to a mine in a neighborhood built for miners’ families. But the mine is all but closed. It isn’t until the family unloads their possessions that they realize Shug’s aren’t among them. He has taken Agnes and her children out into the country to dump them.

Agnes descends into alcoholism, and as his older siblings grow old enough to leave, Shuggie is left trying to hide money for food, trying to keep Agnes’s drinking buddies out of the house, trying to get her to eat. All the while, he has a growing realization that he’s not like other boys. He likes pretty things and colors and is attracted to boys.

This novel is a moving and empathetic portrait of working-class Glasgow in the 1980’s, when there is not much hope for many people. It’s also a convincing depiction of the effects of alcoholism. It is absolutely gripping and heartbreaking. It was the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, and it deserves it.

A Little Life

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Crow Lake

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 1317: Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom

Cover for Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the BallroomDandy Gilver fears that her summons to a house named Balmoral in Glasgow may prove to be a humdrum affair, but she is mourning her dog, Bunty, and feels a need to get out. When she and her partner, Alec Osborne, arrive, their doubts about their customers are confirmed, for Sir Percival and Lady Stott are vulgar nouveau riche. However, they fear that their spoiled daughter, Theresa, or Tweetie, is in danger.

Tweetie is taking part in a ballroom-dancing competition. She has begun receiving veiled threats that someone wishes her harm. The Stotts have urged her to quit the competition, but she is determined to continue. So, Dandy and Alec repair to the Locarno Ballroom to investigate. It seems that only Tweetie’s partner, Roly; her cousin, Jeanne; the pianist, Miss Thwaite; or another couple, Bert and Beryl, could have access to leave some of the messages. But what Dandy and Alec can’t figure out is why everyone around the ballroom seems so terrified. Shortly, they discover that there was a similar incident the year before that resulted in a death.

Although I am gaining enthusiasm for McPherson’s contemporary thrillers, my taste for the Dandy Gilver mystery series is losing momentum. I like Dandy and Alec but feel that perhaps this series gets a little too mired in red herrings, if that makes any sense.

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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 649: The Death of Bees

Cover for The Death of BeesBest Book of the Week!
It may take some fortitude for readers to get past the foul language and bad behavior at the beginning of this novel. But I think most readers will feel it is worth it to have read this dark, funny, and ultimately touching little modern gothic novel.

Marnie and her younger sister Nelly find themselves with a problem. Their parents are dead, and they have already once experienced the joys of the foster care system. So, the two girls bury their mother Izzy in the back garden and hide their father Gene in the shed.

Izzy hung herself, but it is not altogether clear for quite some time what happened to Gene. The couple were terrible parents in any case, Izzy a self-obsessed, neglectful addict and Gene also an addict and molester of his own daughters. The two girls will do their best to take care of themselves until 15-year-old Marnie can do it legally.

Lennie, the old man next door, is a social outcast. After the death of his long-time partner, the lonely Lennie was once tempted by a male prostitute, only to be arrested and charged because the prostitute was a minor. Lennie doesn’t see that well anymore, so although he knew the man was young, he didn’t know how young and feels thoroughly ashamed. Despite his poor eyesight, Lennie is the only person who notices that the two girls are on their own. Soon, he is inviting them over and feeding them, happy to have someone to cook for.

The meat of the novel is the characters of these three. Marnie is brash, foul-mouthed, and smart. She is determined to protect her unworldly sister. But she is more vulnerable than she seems.

Nelly speaks like someone out of a Jane Austen novel and seems strangely clueless for a girl growing up in a tough Glaswegian neighborhood. She has a tendency to see only what she wants to.

Lennie misses his partner. He is meticulous but still ready to open his house to the two teenage girls.

Marnie’s world is populated with drug dealers, butch girlfriends and unreliable boyfriends, a best friend who was ready to run off with her father, and other difficult personalities. As Lennie’s dog Bobbie insists on digging up the bones in the garden and the girls evade questions about their parents, they both learn who they can love and depend upon.

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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.