Denise Mina's The Field of Blood is as impressive a novel as I've read in some time. It is not always, however, a lot of fun to read. And it is saved from being just another unpleasant slice of life by the fact that it is a crime novel: this gives the book structure, and purpose, and renders it ultimately satisfying. The literary version of the same material would be just plain distasteful.
The Field of Blood was published in 2004, being by my count the author's fifth novel. It was identified on publication as the first in a series, and book two (The Dead Hour) came out in 2006, while Slip of the Knife has just appeared.
The principal character in Field of Blood, and in the series, is an overweight young woman called Paddy Meehan. When we first meet her it is 1981, and she is eighteen years old, working as a copy boy (sic) on a Glasgow newspaper. She still lives with her family, and has ambitions to be a journalist.
However, this is Glasgow, and it's 1981, a time and place in which sexism and religious bigotry were the order of the day. Furthermore, Paddy comes from a working-class Catholic family. The family has no expectations of her, other than that she will marry her fiance, Sean, and have children just like any other woman. And the newspaper is staffed exclusively by hard-drinking men who regard her as part of the furniture.
The opening chapter of the book describes the murder of a child, by two other children. This fictional crime is clearly based on a real-life crime in Liverpool, which you can read all about if you've the stomach for it. My stomach is medium strong, but I didn't find this happy reading, and I wasn't sure that I wanted to continue with the book. However, continue I did, and it pretty soon had me gripped tight.
Paddy, of course, begins to investigate the murder, prompted in part by the fact that one of the children accused of the crime is related to her fiance. In a complicated course of events, she falls out comprehensively with her family (and is sent to Coventry by them as a result), gets herself unengaged, loses her virginity, and very nearly gets herself killed.
She doesn't lose her Catholic faith, but that's only because she lost it years earlier, before her first communion. She goes to church to please her mother, who goes to church to please her husband, who goes to church to set a good example to his children.
Side by side with the story of fat Paddy Meehan, the teenage girl, Denise Mina tells us the story of real-life Paddy Meehan, a professional criminal who was nicely fitted up by the police for a murder that he did not commit. Eventually, after some crusading journalism and a 1976 book by Ludovic Kennedy, Meehan's conviction was overturned. Mina interviewed him when she was a law student.
As an evocation of time, place, and atmosphere, this book is, I am sure, the equal of any Booker shortlisted book, but it is also, fortunately, much more. Because it's a crime novel we have a good strong narrative thread, and we are spared the arty-farty fancypants bullshit.
We learn, of course, that children do not commit systematic, deliberate, and brutal murder without having first had some very nasty things done to them. The cycle, as is now well understood, is self-perpetuating.
Strongly recommended, but it's dark stuff. It remains to be seen how the series develops, but I will certainly be having a look in due course.
More on the author's web site.