This is another re-visit for me. I came upon Denise Mina’s reluctant and extremely moody sleuth, Maureen O’Donnel, about ten years ago. I recall banging through the first two books, Garnethill and Exile, in a weekend, then feeling rather distraught having to wait for the third in the trilogy. As soon as Resolution came out, I snapped it up and devoured it in short order, and even though Mina brought the trilogy to a believable and satisfying wrap-up, I felt decidedly bereft at losing such an original moody sleuth as Mauri.
Thankfully Mina has since given us another couple of series protagonists, but in my opinion, none with such an impact as her first.
Over time I’ve recommended the Garnetthill trilogy to others, and everyone agrees how good the books are, but more than one reader has told me they found them so dark and the characters so damaged, that they couldn’t bear to read all three books at a go. One woman confessed to reading them with a guilty fascination; Maureen’s life, the lives of her family and friends were so far removed from her own experience that she felt like a voyeur.
Mauri is a victim who refuses to be one; an incest survivor, she’s suffered a mental breakdown after years of flashbacks, ended up in a psychiatric hospital for eight months, and is now trying to get back to a ‘normal life’ while trying to cope with an alcoholic mother and two sisters who refuse to believe she was abused as a child. Her abusive father has recently returned to Glasgow, and Maurie fears he is a threat to her sister’s soon-to-be-born child, and she’s determined to do something about it.
Granted, Mauri is an unusual amateur sleuth, but what is it that makes her so?
I did a bit of research into the subject of amateur sleuths and found that they’re most often found in ‘cozy mysteries’ as opposed to noir-ish thrillers such as the Garnetthill trilogy. I also took a look at a few how-to sites and found lists of characteristics that budding mystery writers are encouraged to give their amateur sleuths in order to make them believable. Since there’s enough overlap that I don’t feel I’m infringing anyone’s copyright, I grabbed a few from the lists and took a look at how Maureen O’Donnell measures up.
The top priority appears to be that an amateur sleuth must have a compelling reason to be involved in investigating the crime. She’s not a cop, nor a paid PI, so the reason for her to get involved has to be damned good to be believable.
In the 1st book of the trilogy, Garnethill, Maureen comes home drunk after a night out with her best friend, falls into bed, and in the morning finds her lover dead in her living-room, his throat slit. Clues at the scene suggest she was involved, and as things progress, her brother Liam, a sometimes drug dealer who is very protective of her, also becomes a suspect.
In this bit, Maureen and her best friend Leslie discuss the police’s lack of progress in the murder investigation while sharing a pot of stew left by one of Leslie’s neighbours:
Leslie dunked a folded slice of buttered bread in the hot gravy in her bowl. … What are you going to do about Douglas?”
“I dunno either,” said Maureen. “The police don’t seem very sharp. They totally missed Suicide Tanya and the photograph in the paper. They must have missed other stuff too, things I didn’t stumble across.”
“Yeah,” said Leslie, combing through the thick gravy with her fork, looking for the meat. “I bet they did.”
Maureen sipped her beer and watched Leslie biting a lump of meat off her fork. “Do you think I should leave it to the police?”
Leslie chewed a space in her mouth. “No, I don’t. They’ll charge you and if they don’t get you they’ll get Liam.”
“That’s what I think.”
Leslie swallowed. “The police don’t have an infinite amount of time to spend on anything. They just go with the most obvious answer. You’re both so dodgy-looking. Think about it, the two people who could get into the house. You’ve got a psychiatric history which you’ve already lied about, you were his mistress-“
“I wasn’t his mistress”
“That’s what they’ll call it and they probably can’t conceive of a woman who doesn’t want to get her man and keep him. And Liam, heavy guy, dealer, public enemy number one, wee sister seeing married older guy. Gets protective and kills him.”
In the 2nd book, Exile, a former resident at the women’s shelter where Mauri works is found beaten to death in the Thames River, in London. It turns out that the woman was married to the cousin of Mauri’s best friend Leslie, and suspicion is that the husband did her in. At Leslie’s request, Mauri visits the cousin and finds him penniless, struggling to keep four ‘weans’ fed after his wife went missing owing money and taking their child benefit book (which is still being cashed on a regular basis.) Mauri is convinced Leslie’s cousin is too meek a man to have murdered his wife. Out of friendship for Leslie she doggedly pursues the truth.
In the 3rd book, Resolution, there’s two main threads driving the action: the impending trial of the accused killer from Garnethill, and Mauri’s resolution to finally face her abusive father (who has recently returned to Glasgow). As Mauri tries to cope, the suspicious death of an elderly woman at first seems a mere distraction from her other problems, but her determination to unearth the reason for Ella’s death draws Mauri and her friends, Leslie and Kilty into a quest that ultimately exposes an international ring involved in trafficking women for sexual slavery in Glasgow.
Full points for the first requirement, then. It appears Mauri has compelling reasons for ‘getting involved.’
Next on the list: The amateur sleuth should be likeable, but also complex, with some character flaws.
Everyone I know who’s read the books finds Mauri likeable, and I defy anyone to suggest her character’s not complex; she’s a parcel of contradictions, fiercely loyal to her friends, but also headstrong, even belligerent, tactless and argumentative, which gets her into trouble on more than one occasion. She can be doggedly determined when she sets her mind to something, but she’s also prone to whinging about indecisively, sure she’s wrong about everything.
She smokes and drinks to excess, mixes single malt with lime cordial, too often gets stupid drunk with no apologies. She’s educated, but lives like one of the proverbial unwashed; her flat is a sty, she neglects her personal hygiene, and she has trouble keeping a job. For every good trait, Mauri seems to have two or three unsavory ones. She’s hardly the clean-living Nancy Drew or Miss Marple, for sure, but it’s part of what makes her so believable.
One last item from the list: It’s imperative that the crime can be solved through logical deduction.
I honestly believe Denise Mina had some fun with this, giving us a few situations, part serious, part tongue-in-cheek. Fairly early on in the first book, Garnethill, Mauri visits Leslie to tell her what’s been going on:
They settled down in the deck chairs, sipping their whisky and smoking cigarettes. “I’m drinking all the time,” said Maureen.
“I don’t think alcohol abuse is a bad way to cope with short-term traumas.”
Maureen laughed with surprise. “That’s the worst advice you’ve ever given me.”
Leslie thought about it. “Oh, well, fuck it, then.”
The kitchen gulp hit Maureen’s head and she felt a wave of purposeful clarity coming on. “I don’t want to sit about holding a comb and waiting for them to come for me. How would you go about finding the person who did this?”
Leslie puffed the last of her fag and thought about it.
“You’re doing all right so far,” she said. “It’s just a logic problem.”
“But suppose their behavior isn’t logical. If the murderer’s mental it isn’t a logic problem, is it?”
Leslie dropped her cigarette into a space between the dead plants and stepped on it, twisting it with her foot, scattering fiery red sparkles among the plant pots. “He can’t be a maniac, it’s all too carefully organized.”
And in the final book, Resolution, Mauri, Leslie and Kilty retreat to a cafe after Leslie surprisingly decks the bouncer outside a brothel they suspect is using Polish immigrant women as sex slaves. The situation is dire, but Mina injects some quirky humour.
It was a strange cafe, furnished with old school desks and a curvy bit of a church pew. Two avocado-colored baths took up valuable floor space and had plants growing in them for no good reason. It was kept busy with the waves of homebound pub-goers, clubbers and lost loners who just couldn’t sleep. Kilty ordered a whole lot of things from cups of cocoa to eggs Benedict and they dutifully handed their menus back to the exhausted waitress.
“What was all that stuff?” asked Leslie.
“Calming food,” said Kilty, getting a pink Powerpuff Girls notebook out of her handbag and flipping it open. “We need to calm down and think about what we’re going to do about this.”
“I don’t want to calm down,” said Leslie. “I enjoyed that.” (punching out the brothel bouncer)
Kilty took out a pen, clicked it open and wrote an elaborate “1” in the tiny margin. “We need to think. What are our goals here?”
“What d’ye mean?” Leslie asked.
“What are we going to try to achieve? It’s better if we work that out before we come up with a plan.” Then she explained, “Social work postgrad, course 101.”
They saw the logic.
Next post – Tuesday, 12 Feb.