Source: Review copy, Netgalley
Publication: 16th May 2019 from Harvill Secker
It’s just a normal morning for Anna McDonald. Gym kits, packed lunches, getting everyone up and ready. Until she opens the front door to her best friend, Estelle. Anna turns to see her own husband at the top of the stairs, suitcase in hand. They’re leaving together and they’re taking Anna’s two daughters with them.
Left alone in the big, dark house, Anna can’t think, she can’t take it in. With her safe, predictable world shattered, she distracts herself with a story: a true-crime podcast. There’s a sunken yacht in the Mediterranean, multiple murders and a hint of power and corruption. Then Anna realises she knew one of the victims in another life. She is convinced she knows what happened. Her past, so carefully hidden until now, will no longer stay silent.
This is a murder she can’t ignore, and she throws herself into investigating the case. But little does she know, her past and present lives are about to collide, sending everything she has worked so hard to achieve into freefall.
The overwhelming feeling I got from Conviction – one of my must read books of 2019, was of deliciously enjoyable light and shade. This is a writer having fun and there’s a delicate touch to the writing that allows Mina to deploy her dark humour while wrapping us in an engrossing story that carries us on journeys across Europe (thank goodness there’s no Brexit here yet) in search of a stunning denouement.
Anna McDonald is our protagonist. She lives well in Glasgow’s comfortably corniced West End with her husband, Hamish and her two daughters, Jess and Lizzie. A light and uneasy sleeper, Anna loves having the early mornings to herself when she uses her solitary time to listen to true crime podcasts.
Death and the Dana is her current listen. A six-episode series about the sinking of the Dana, a yacht moored on an island off the west coast of France, near La Rochelle. One night, the ship slipped out of the harbour with its navigation lights off and using no and radio communication. It crossed the shipping channel, suffered an explosion below decks, and sank in the Bay of Biscay. Aboard were a father and his two grown children, Mark and Violetta. The crew had been paid and sent ashore, and the chef had boarded a plane to Lyon. Yet she was charged with and convicted of the murder of al three. Podcast producer Trina Keany is having trouble making sense of this judgement. The sinking of the Dana and the deaths of these three are surrounded by intrigue and have all the hallmarks of a great story; a tragic event, money, a reclusive heiress, ghosts and too many secrets to uncover in one episode.
As the novel begins, Anna’s life is about to be turned upside down. Her best friend, Estelle arrives at the door and as she does so, husband Hamish leaves with her, taking her daughters and leaving her without so much as a backward glance. Hamish and Estelle are off to Portugal with the girls, generously allowing Anna a week to get used to her new situation, and then they’ll be back to live in the house. Hamish generously leaves Anna a wad of cash – ‘re-settlement money’ – so that she can find somewhere else to go. He’s a peach, isn’t he?
Overwhelmed by shock and struggling to understand what has been going on under her nose, Anna’s hold on reality is obtained by her focus on the true crime podcast, mostly because she recognises a name from her past in connection with the crime. Anna met Leon Parker years ago, when she was working as a maid at the chic and exclusive Skibo Castle, where Parker was a guest. They used to chat over a clandestine cigarette by the bins and Anna liked the way that Leon neither patronised nor pawed at her but simply enjoyed sharing stories and the odd joke.
When Fin Cohen, Estelle’s husband, turns up on her doorstep, it’s clear he is in a worse state than Anna. Fin is a rock star, one who had a meteoric rise to fame and then couldn’t handle the pressure; now he is an anorexic and quite fragile. Estelle’s decision to leave him has hit him hard.
Anna and Fin launch decide to take a trip to get away from the wreckage of their lives. As they travel, Anna plays the Dana podcast and Fin, too gets caught up in the mystery. The two set off to work together to solve the mystery behind the sunken Dana – as much a diversion therapy as anything else, but why not? After all, Anna has this wad of cash burning a hole in her pocket.
It isn’t long before we realise that there is more to Anna than we were at first led to believe. Mina spins a compelling first person story narrative – a web within a spider’s web, where the threads are intertwined and to solve one set of murders we will first have to understand what lies behind Anna’s own story and to conquer the dragon that has been breathing fire on Anna’s heels for years.
Anna is stronger than she knows and her resilience will inspire Fin to create their own podcast, a narrative on solving the Dana crimes. Fin’s celebrity status means their podcast jumps high in the ratings from the outset, attracting not only fascinated listeners but also agents of destruction bent on stopping Fin and Anna.
Denise Mina has written a brilliant, character driven, edgy and relatable crime thriller that combines the best characterisation with compelling story telling. There’s so much too this exceptional, layered crime thriller that the reader will be captivated and enthralled by the deft plotting, stunning secrets and rich characters that populate the pages.
Inside this true crime podcast is an even truer story. An everyday story of rape, trauma, persecution and privilege prevailing. A shocking, unhinging tale of how money talks loudest of all.
In Anna, Mina has given us an astonishingly rich character. Anna is a resilient sharp and focussed protagonist whose clear sight and determination can move mountains, when you thought you were getting a story about castles and ghosts. She ought not to be likable. From the beginning of this novel she has been clear that she’s no big fan of the truth. ‘Lie and lie again’ is her motto. Yet despite her penchant for lying and her deceitful behaviour, there’s something about Anna you can’t help but like even before you know her story.
Mina takes her readers on a fascinating journey across Europe in search of the truth. In doing so she articulates the power in speaking the truth and in being heard. Amidst this undeniably gripping crime story there is another story that stands true and proud and calls out its name unashamedly.
This is the power of Conviction, a novel with two stories and two meanings. Amidst the luxury yachts of France’s coastline and glamorous European locations taking us into the world of international finance, Mina spins her pacey tale with dark humour, sordid deeds and fabulously described characters.
Verdict: There’s enough here for every reader with twists and turns to delight and confound. What lingers, though, is the impact of Anna’s ability to finally stop sheltering behind the lies. To feel the impact on her relationships of being able to come out and speak the truth. To finally hear her own story in her own words, told with conviction. That’s a story to be proud of, too.
After a peripatetic childhood in Glasgow, Paris, London, Invergordon, Bergen and Perth, Denise Mina left school early. Working in a number of dead end jobs, all of them badly, before studying at night school to get into Glasgow University Law School.
Denise went on to study for a PhD at Strathclyde, misusing her student grant to write her first novel. This was Garnethill, published in 1998, which won the Crime Writers Association John Creasy Dagger for Best First Crime Novel.
She has now published 12 novels and also writes short stories, plays and graphic novels. In 2014 she was inducted into the Crime Writers’ Association Hall of Fame. Her novel The Long Drop won the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year in 2017.
Denise presents TV and radio programmes as well as regularly appearing in the media, and has made a film about her own family. She regularly appears at literary festivals in the UK and abroad, leads masterclasses on writing and was a judge for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction 2014.