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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Slip of the Knife (hardcover, $24.99), by Denise Mina

Grade: A

It's an embarrassment of riches to have read two wonderful books in a row. Benjamin Black's was Irish and this one is Scottish with an Irish twang. However, there was a wee problem this time.

I have to watch The Wire with the captioning on. I admire and savor George Pelecanos's books but find myself says, as I puzzle over the vernacular of the D.C. streets, "What does that mean?" When I called the Lake District in England from Portland to book hotel reservations a few years ago, instead of a confirmation of the room I had just booked, I heard, "Da, da, da, da, da, da, da...yeh?" Come again? "Da, da, da, da, da, da, da...yeh?" Embarrassed to admit I had no idea what the person had just said in English, I said, "Yes, right," and hoped a room would be waiting for me when I arrived in a few weeks.

Which brings me to my review of Denise Mina's newest novel in the Paddy Meehan series, Slip of the Knife.

My introduction to Mina was through her award-winning trilogy -- Garnethill, Exile, and Resolution -- which is a fascinating, dark journey into a seedy, dysfunctional Glasgow that won't be on my tourist list anytime soon, and I was hooked on her edgy writing and characterizations. But as with The Wire, Pelecanos's books, and my Lake District reservations clerk, I was occasionally slowed down by the unfamiliar slang and accent, distracted by thinking I should understand what she is saying -- after all, it is English. But we know that's a misconception.

Boot, flat, biscuit are words that provide a mutual source of confusion, since they mean one thing in America, another in Great Britain. Wendy house and kipper, however, are just plain meaningless here. For those of us who love the outstanding mystery authors exported to us from England, Scotland, and Ireland, we've stuttered through our introduction to these words and eventually added them and the like to our lexicon. We now think we can read books from over The Pond with dispatch. And then comes Mina.

Actually, Slip of the Knife is much more accessible than the trilogy...or I'm getting used to it, ye wee nutter. It's not just the strange words and cultural references that make me stumble. What I appreciate about Mina is also what slows me at the start of her books until I get the hang of it; there is definitely an alien rhythm to her writing. My ear must become accustomed not just to words like "wee" and "ye" and phrases like "I'm just after telling him that," but to a poetry in her words. For example, when talking about a police officer who has the unenviable job of telling people their loved ones have died, Mina says, "She...hadn't yet developed the cold skill of looking heartbreak in the face." I love it. I want to savor it.

Patricia "Paddy" Meehan is a columnist for a Scottish newspaper. An ex-boyfriend and fellow journalist is murdered, and Paddy becomes involved when she believes the authorities are haring off in the wrong direction. In the process of investigating, she unwittingly brings danger into her life and into the lives of those she loves. That's the short of it.

Mina also offers up complex relationships, humor, a gritty Glasgow, love, and sacrifice. In addition, Paddy has a large Catholic family, and they are very much a part of the story. One sister is a Sister, two of her brothers are surely up to mischief in London, her mother makes soup, her five-year-old son has her heart, and her son's father is a failing comic. That cast list isn't the half of it. There are also the gentle roommate, the editor and Monkey, his assistant, and another ex-boyfriend and his cousin who is soon to be released from prison where he has been held since he was a child for murdering a toddler. Mina gives her characters depth without bloating the book. All their stories come together, and Mina has time to take a look into the world of Irish politics.

The essence of this work is what the characters will sacrifice and do for each other, and who these characters are reaches our eyes in slowly escaping bits, as Mina plants surprises and revelations about them. It is also obvious that Paddy is a maverick, and her unexpected behavior in the face of crisis certainly kept me turning the pages. And that's the long of it.

1 comment:

  1. Denise Mina will be stopping in at MBTB on Thursday 4/3 to sign stock. Any of the trade paperback editions of her books (priced over $10)that you order will be held till then and sent signed. You may reply to the confirmation email you'll receive to request a personal inscription (e.g. "Happy Birthday, Sally."