Sunday, June 01, 2008
Denise Mina's Slip of the Knife/Last Breath
Denise Mina's most recent Glasgow novel featuring Paddy Meehan (Slip of the Knife in the U.S., The Last Breath in the U.K.--somebody explain to me the title change between the 2 editions...) contains all the elements of a thriller/potboiler: The English secret service, Irish nationalists (pre-Good Friday), the assassination of a naked, hooded victim, the release from prison of a child-murderer, and a ruthless murderer on the loose (along with various heavies in supporting roles). But as we have come to expect from Mina, the novel is less consumed by all these thriller trappings than by the family drama in Paddy's life, shifted forward several years. Paddy is now an established columnist (having gone through her "dues" as a copy boy and junior reporter in earlier installments of the series) as well as an unwed mother. Her complicated Irish Catholic family (a minority position in the social hierarchy of Glasgow) has list its timid patriarch, unsettling what had been a tense balance of forces, her brothers are off in England, her sister is in the convent, and until Callum Ogilvy (child murder from a previous novel and cousin of her former boyfriend) is released from prison and Paddy's former lover is murdered, Paddy is perched at the edge of the good life. But these events push her back into chaos, personal and professional, and give her a new role: fierce defender of her young son. That mother-son relationship is the center of the novel, rather than the plot itself: this is not a novel of action but of character portraits of tense, threatened people (well drawn and entirely believable). The text is introspective or ruminative, even when the narrator's eye strays away from Paddy. The tone and the structure are drawn from tragedy, a tradition and a tone that pervade the book (underpinning the character- rather than plot-driven narrative), though with frequent comic touches, especially in the dialogue among characters. Noir fiction tends toward tragedy--I suppose thrillers and mysteries tend more toward the romance (certainly an ancient form, though not quite so much as tragedy) in formal terms. But like much crime fiction, Mina's tragic noir stops short of the murder rate of classical tragedy: some, at least, of the main characters are still standing at the end: Slip of the Knife has an almost sunny ending (if Mina's regular readers can imagine such a thing) in spite of the murders and attempted murders (some of them with surprising perpetrators and accomplices. There's almost too much plot in Slip of the Knife, but Mina's tone and characters are so carefully drawn and controlled that the novel never slips into cliche--and after all the whole Paddy Meehan series rests on the thriller-like career of the "real" Paddy Meehan, who appears again in this novel as a leitmotif of "our" Paddy's now succesful, though still troubled, professional and personal life.