More than any of Denise Mina’s work to date, The Red Road is a novel about the past and its ability to haunt the present. Mina’s latest foray into Glaswegian crime and corruption involving Detective Inspector Alex Morrow is a story which begins on the night of Princess Diana’s death.
Rose Wilson, a fourteen year old foster-home orphan and sexual abuse victim, sits in bloodstained shock in her “boyfriend’s” car having committed two gruesome crimes. After her arrest, Rose meets a sympathetic defence counsellor Julius McMillan who recognises that she herself is a victim and colludes with corrupt police officials to lessen her sentence by framing Michael Brown, younger brother of Rose’s first victim, for his brother’s murder. Years later, in present day Glasgow, DI Alex Morrow takes the stand against the same Michael
Brown on a separate case. Now something of a career criminal with the prison contacts to match, Brown’s finger prints are found at a fresh murder scene at the Red Road flats, a seemingly impossible fact due to his continued incarceration. Meanwhile, Rose Wilson, now nanny to Julius McMillan’s grandchildren, finds figures from the past springing up all around her.
Mina’s choice to open (and return) her story to August 31st 1997 and the subsequent days is strategic, using Diana’s death as a touchstone of the nation’s emotional connectivity. It is not the princess they shed tears for but themselves, or rather their own stark circumstances which they see reflected back in Diana’s death. Julius, a self confessed “Republican, anti-royalist by instinct and tradition” remembers himself exchanging fleeting pleasantries with the princess years earlier and suffers hysterical “racking sobs spewed up from his abdomen like hiccups” upon learning of her demise. Unable to rationalise the intensity of his emotion, he can only attribute such despair to “disaster looming on his own horizon”. Even Rose, whom Julius characterises as an “an impassive witness” of catastrophes, is tearful, crying, “‘She was young to die…And those boys…'”. But which boys: those too young to die or a pair of newly bereft young princes?
Not that Mina lets such British responses pass without injecting a certain amount of Glaswegian bemusement. Glasgow’s “city closure was not, like London, a natural response to crippling grief, but rather an awkward pause”, a disconnect from south of the border that even Julius feels as he watches news footage of “sobbing” London from a “cynical Glasgow, a city exhausted of sorrow.” Glasgow is also gripped in the throes of change; it is presumably not by accident that the Red Road flats, scheduled for demolition are selected by Mina as a crime scene, showing the passage of time in the remodelling of landscape as well as character.
As might be expected, the police procedural aspects of Mina’s novel which include court room scenes and interrogation room settings, the bread-and -butter of the genre are taut and extremely proficient in conveying Morrow’s experience of the justice system. Morrow’s continuing story is now complicated by the birth of her one year old twins, and the continued presence of her half-brother who also happens to be a major player among the city’s gangsters.
Michael Brown is an intriguing addition to Mina’s cannon, at once tragic yet capable of the monstrous – a perception of himself that he plays up to in order to return to captivity. Warped by his imprisonment at an early age, and unable to function without the structure of prison life, Michael is never likeable but never inhuman – Mina never moralises, but here it’s hard to miss the idea of prison as destructive rather than redemptive: a broken system breeds broken people.
The Red Road is everything that her readership has come to expect of Mina’s fiction. Hard boiled and brutal novels, Mina’s writing is utterly unsentimental yet remains insightfully humane.
Ed: Denise Mina in conversation with Alex Henry can be found HERE.