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The mere prospect of a forthcoming novel by certain writers is enough to light my day and high up on this list is Denise Mina. GODS AND BEASTS is the third in her Alex Morrow series and very likely the best to date. This time, Morrow is newly returned from maternity leave and the mother of twin boys. When last we saw her, she was trying to stay free from the coil of cop-shop politics that was trying to bring down the despised Detective Bannerman. Now he is gone, but little has improved. No wonder Alex prefers to stay out of the office and on the street as much as she can.
It is a week before Christmas and an armed robber holds up a post office. Not much noteworthy there except for the fact that in the course of the robbery, one of the customers silently entrusts his little grandson to another man, a tattooed stranger huddled next to him on the floor as ordered. Then the grandfather gets up and helps the robber make an efficient escape, holding the door for him. As thanks, he is cut in two by a burst from the AK-47 pistol the thief is wielding.
Alex is puzzled. Why did the thief mow down this elderly grandfather, Brendan Lyons, who apparently was only trying to help? Could Lyons be less harmless than he appears? Looking into his background, Alex discovers that he had been a highly regarded member of the Labour Party; what will perhaps startle readers in the US is that his long affiliation with the Communist Party as well is part of his bona fides, evidence of his stern principles. He appears to have nothing unsavoury about him. All the same, he passed his four-year-old grandson over to a stranger, one, moreover, tattooed with the phrase "Gods and Beasts." In Glasgow idiom, "beast" is the equivalent of child molester.
Further investigation uncovers a link to Kenny Gallagher, MP, once the darling of the constituency, now on the brink of losing the party nomination as the result of that politician's nemesis, the sex scandal. His struggle to preserve his marriage and if possible his career is the second thread in the narrative. Finally, there is the matter of venal police officers, two of whom are caught on camera making off with a large amount of cash. When this comes to light, the dreaded Bannerman is heard to approach as he is now part of the Professional Standards Unit (PSU), tasked with investigating instances of police corruption. It is a prospect that terrifies Alex's partner, Harris - he'd been instrumental in the earlier campaign against Bannerman. And if all this were not enough, Alex, newly returned to duty, is seeking to find a balance between her working life and her domestic responsibilities and to provide her twins with an extensive experience of family. The problem here is that Alex's family prominently includes a major figure in the Glasgow organized crime scene, her half-brother Danny McGrath.
For much of the way, these three narrative strands seem only tangentially connected. Alex may have a lot to distract her but she maintains her investigative strengths - her keen eye for the "tell" that indicates a possible lie, her ability to think herself into the situation of those she wants to know more about, her consciousness of how being a woman is a fundamental factor in that situation. There's a finely-tuned class-consciousness here as well, something that marks this as Glaswegian to the core, far more definitively than any number of mentions of Irn Bru might.
The threads do come together at the end. How is a surprise, though, retrospectively, the convergence is inevitable if bleak, one that almost seems less brought about by Mina's own skill than by the sordid maw of Glasgow corruption opening up and swallowing it all without a hiccup.
In the past fifteen years, Mina has produced three strong series, several equally strong standalones, and has simply got better by the year. GODS AND BEASTS is ample evidence, if any is still needed, that she knows exactly how to infuse a compelling crime narrative with a social perspective grounded in gender and class experience without ever becoming even remotely tendentious. The next in the Alex Morrow series is due out in July - I have no intention of waiting for tardy North American publishers to bring it out over here but already have it on order.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2013
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