Is Denise Mina becoming blasé about the crime fiction awards that routinely come her way? If so, the process may be accelerated by The Red Road.But along with being one of the finest practitioners of the criminal art, she is also a social commentator of perception and humanity, as the new novel reminds us.
The Red Road begins in 1997, with the 14-year-old Rose Wilson being pimped by her "boyfriend", when she compromises her already ignoble life by committing two desperate crimes.
Rose is arrested, and defence lawyer Julius Macmillan decides to take her case. Although she ends up in prison, she is visited by her sympathetic counsel, accompanied by his son Robert. After her rehabilitation, she joins the Macmillan household and even acts as nanny to Robert’s children, as well as becoming Macmillan’s assistant in his law practice when darker corners need to be probed.
Unsurprisingly, all of this is handled with the assurance that we expect from Mina, who is second to none in the creation of damaged female protagonists. Rose is one of her most fully rounded and convincing creations.
But then the novel moves to the present, where a deeply unpleasant arms dealer, Michael brown, is involved with a murder in the eponymous Red Road flats, and Detective Alex Morrow is a witness in the case. At the same time, a well-heeled Scottish lawyer waits in a castle on Mull, knowing that an assassin is en route to kill him.
These disparate elements are brought together with authority, intricately drawing us into a narrative that engages with a variety of issues, all equally provocative. Concealed beneath the surface is an agenda which has been a consistent element of Mina’s work: a concern for the vulnerable and damaged in society, and a rage at injustice.
Our sympathy is both invited and tested in the most rigorous of fashions (it is to Mina’s credit that she is never sentimental towards her victims). But if the unpleasant characters here are writ larger than we are accustomed to with this author, their unspeakable nature serves the function of galvanising our responses to a complex, crowded novel.