Source: Review copy
Publication: 20th August 2020 from Random House UK; Harvill Secker
When Margo goes in search of her birth mother for the first time, she meets her aunt, Nikki, instead. Margo learns that her mother, Susan, was a sex worker murdered soon after Margo’s adoption. To this day, Susan’s killer has never been found.
Nikki asks Margo for help. She has received threatening and haunting letters from the murderer, for decades. She is determined to find him, but she can’t do it alone…
Goodness me, gentle reader, but this book is a cracker! Want to know how good it is? Though it is very different, it reminds me in many ways of The Long Drop and that was OUTSTANDING! I read it from cover to cover in one day. I was so engrossed in the story and everything Mina was telling me that I did not want to stop – and believe me, that’s been a rare experience in this lockdown.
Margo Dunlop is mourning the death of her adoptive mother and is vulnerable with many changes in her life right now. Margot is a doctor, pregnant and on bereavement leave and has just split from her partner, Joe.
As we meet her, she is in the offices of an adoption agency waiting to meet her aunt, having discovered that her mother, Susan Brodie, died not long after giving birth to Margo. Nikki is Susan’s sister and she is very late to the meeting; held up as a result of a trial she is involved with. (Mina fans will enjoy the wee Easter egg she throws in for us at the courthouse). When Nikki finally appears, just as Margo is about to leave, she is taken aback by how much Margo looks like her birth mother.
Nikki tells Margo that Susan was a prostitute and an addict and that she was murdered at the age of 19, by a serial killer who murdered 9 women but was never caught. Nikki was also an addict, also working the streets – and part of the richness of this book is embodied in the way in which Mina explores middle class attitudes to sex, drugs and violence and the delicacy with which Margo tries to engage with Nikki, all the time just a wee bit at sea as to how to relate to her.
Indeed, after their first meeting she gives her false contact details, so unsure is she as to whether she wants Nikki anywhere near her life. Nikki shows her threatening letters she’s received over the years which she believes come from the killer, containing scraps of evidence that come from the site where Susan’s body was found, a bus stop in Easterhouse.
Mina conveys so well the Glasgow of the 80’s, a time when heroin was really the drug of ‘choice’ on the streets of the city and more women entered the world of selling sex than ever before, to be able to get their fix.
Nikki believes she knows who was responsible for the deaths of Susan and the other women and when Margo finds that a similar letter is waiting for her, she is driven to find out what’s going on.
What makes this book work so incredibly well is the fragile relationship between these women and the way that they dance around each other, not quite knowing how to relate, despite the fact that they are blood relatives. But who hasn’t been there, right? The notion of family and what it is, how it works is explored through the relationships of all the women in this book, as is the unremitting question of male violence and how that so easily transcends any notion of class distinction.
Margo has difficulty in dealing with the sex worker side of Nikki’s life, her past drug addiction and the violence that is a part and parcel of the life of a sex worker but at the same time she is appalled by the casual and brutal attitude of the Police to these women’s deaths. Because they were sex workers, their deaths were treated as some kind of work related accident; they were disposable – or in the title of the book, the ‘less dead’, women whose deaths were less significant because they were not part of polite society. And because they were in the main, poor and working class, they was no moral outrage; they had no-one who would speak up for them and demand justice. They were disposable in a world where you can always get another one where that one came from. It is only Diane Gallagher, a woman cop in a sea of men who is prepared to be more human and even she is holding back.
There is a strong and menacing plot running through this book, as Margo is threatened by our unseen killer, the tension rising as she tries to find the killer, her suspicion falling on more than one many man she encounters with a propensity to use his fists. Margo may think she’s getting to the truth, but the killer is always one step ahead and she’s really not seeing the wood from the trees.
Mina’s love of true crime comes through in the form of Jack Robertson, a rather sleazy author who has written about Susan’s and the other women’s deaths and is now being sued for pointing the finger. He is obviously is keen to have his theories validated.
The core of the story, though, is the relationships between all the women in the book, from Margo’s friend Lilah to the women who stand up in solidarity for each other in court.
Glasgow takes centre stage as a character, of course, and is richly and graphically depicted from the wonderful Mitchell Library to the two sides of the Saltmarket; one striving to get to Bohemia but not quite making it; the other populated by men tumbling out of pubs looking for a fight and not caring where they get it.
Verdict: The Less Dead on one level is a suspenseful, menacing thriller and pitch perfect at that. But it is also about the bond between women; about friendship; about how you choose which family you want to belong to and the power dynamics that play out in all families. The writing is fabulous. This is prose you can happily drown in, like a warm bath reaching for you and drawing you in.
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 13 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.