Today I’m sharing my thoughts on The Less Dead, the latest novel from Denise Mina. Quite unbelievably this is the fist of the author’s books I have read but it won’t be the last. My thanks to publishers Harvill Secker for providing a copy of the book for review. Here’s what the book is about:
About the Book
When Margo goes in search of her birth mother for the first time, she meets her aunt, Nikki, instead. Margo learns that her mother, Susan, was a sex worker murdered soon after Margo’s adoption. To this day, Susan’s killer has never been found.Available from: Amazon | Kobo | Waterstones | Hive | Googleplay | Apple Books
Nikki asks Margo for help. She has received threatening and haunting letters from the murderer, for decades. She is determined to find him, but she can’t do it alone…
A brilliant, thought-provoking and heart-wrenching new thriller about identity and the value of a life, from the award-winning author of The Long Drop and Conviction.
Well … I guess the moral of this story is be careful what you wish for. I’m pretty sure (in fact as I have read the book, I know) that when Margo decided to try and track down her birth mother she hadn’t been expecting to find anything quite as dark and deadly as this twisted tale. Sex worker and recovering addict, Susan had sacrificed a lot and worked really hard to give Margo a better start, only to have it all taken when she is brutally murdered as many other women had been before her. Meeting her maternal Aunt, Nikki, is only the start of Margo’s troubles and learning who she is and where she really comes from soon put her life at risk.
Now this may be the first Denise Mina book I have read but I can instantly see the attraction. This book goes beyond your usual murder mystery, psychological thriller style far, challenging readers in a much more measured and cerebral way, and yet wrapping it up in a story which completely draws you in and keep you hooked. From the very start I got the impression of Margo as someone is is very controlled, very measured, and so the chaotic whirlwind that is her Aunt Nikki is provides a stark contrast from the moment they meet. It is not simply because Margo is a Doctor and Nikki a former sex worker, although that clearly plays a very large part in the complete dichotomy of their personalities. Other than a passing resemblance there is nothing that that have in common beyond DNA and yet neither can predict how that will soon change.
There is a great sense of threat that feeds throughout the novel. Partly this is driven by the fact that Susan’s killer has never been caught and brought to justice. There are conspiracy theories abound about who was really guilty, one of which leads to a significant sub story within the book, but this whole idea of Susan as being somehow disposable is really where we find the moral core of the whole story. From a police perspective, Susan was just one of many sex workers murdered, another faceless, unimportant nobody whose death was not worth investigating, a sense which still prevails amongst many to this day. That somehow if you are not the picture perfect wife, sister or mother, then your life isn;t glamourous of sexy enough to be more than a minor detail on a new bulletin or in the corner of a newspaper. That your life is reduce to half a dozen lines of text and nothing more. You are the eponymous ‘Less Dead’ of the books title. This book challenges those perceptions – proves that Susan did matter to those who loved her, those who would still given anything to find her killer.
The police are not completely written off, there is one sympathetic character in former DCI Diane Gallagher, but she is somewhat of an anomaly in a sea of institutional prejudice. As the murder took place in the eighties, the whole idea of this level of bigotry and prejudice rings true and is captured perfectly on the page. Even Margo’s own reactions to her new found family speak volumes about that judgment of those who have everything when faced with those who don’t. The contrast between their live, their upbringing, even the way in which they speak and act, is marked and acutely observed, although it is often Nikki who comes across in the most sympathetic and likable way in spite of this being Margo’s story. Denise Mina goes to great lengths to show that Nikki is more than her former career, her loyalty and bravado beautiful to read.
The atmosphere and tension that flows through the book is pitch perfect and the language evocative. The author really captures that sense of loss that margo feels having recently lost her adoptive mother, that uncertainty of change which is being heightened by all of her discoveries about her biological family. This is not a fast paced book, although it is awash with that sense of threat, and there are moments in which I found my pulse picking up and my nerves jangling ,and when you read the book you will understand why. Although, at times, I found myself despairing at Margo’s actions, I also understood why she reacted as she did, and I never once wanted to walk away. But then the closing chapters of the book, where the truth of what has gone before becomes abundantly clear, is absolutely perfect. Surprising, maybe even a little shocking. Compared to some of the volatility that comes before it, the book ends in a somewhat sedate way and yet it is just … right. Definitely a book that makes me want to read more of the author’s work, and one I would recommend.
About the Author
Denise Mina is a critically acclaimed Glaswegian crime writer. Her novels includeThe End of the Wasp Season and Gods and Beasts, both of which won the prestigious Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award in consecutive years. Denise also writes short stories and in 2006 wrote her first play. She is a regular contributor to TV and radio.