Blood Salt Water by Denise Mina

3 Mins read

Alongside Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, the award-winning Denise Mina is one of the authorial voices who has helped shape Tartan noir over the last decade or so. A new book by her is always a cause for celebration and, unlike some crime series, her DI Alex Morrow will always keep you guessing.

Take the setting, for example. Both The Red Road and Gods and Beasts, which we’ve previously reviewed, were set firmly in the badlands of Glasgow. In Blood Salt Water, the action takes place in nearby Helensburgh. They may be less than 35 miles distant by road, but they’re worlds apart in both environment and attitude, as Morrow soon discovers. She and her team have been shadowing Roxanna Fuentecilla, suspected of being a major player in a big-money drug smuggling and money laundering operation, since Roxanna and her family recently made an unexpected move from London to Glasgow. Now the woman has disappeared, leaving her partner and two children behind. The discovery of Roxanne’s car in a Helensburgh field sets all the alarm bells ringing.

So that’s one storyline bottomed off. Meanwhile, in Helenburgh, recently released prisoner Iain Fraser is pulled into something that is destined to change his life. In an attempt to pay off a debt for a friend, he reluctantly takes on a job at the behest of shadowy local crime kingpin Mark Barratt and ends up committing murder. The plot that follows Iain as he struggles to cope with what’s he’s done is among the strongest of this book’s narrative threads.

Then we have the spinsterly Miss Grierson, a former scout leader who left the town for a new life in the USA decades ago and who has now returned to sort out her dead mother’s estate. Dismiss this woman at your peril, because she is just full of surprises! Oh, and did I mention local boy made good Boyd Fraser, who has returned to his home town after a successful stint as a chef in London and is now riding a wave of acclaim with his new business? His story may seem a little out on a limb at first, but don’t worry because magical weaver of yarns Mina soon has him deep in the thick of it all.

There are times when you can only gape in wonder as the author juggles so many different storylines and yet manages to reach a pleasing finale without dropping a single one. A great example of this is a chapter set at a fundraising dinner attended by, it would appear, almost everyone in Helensburgh. As the focus moves from one small drama to another, Mina demonstrates why she has garnered so many writing awards. It is a tour de force example of how to build a sense of unbearable tension before finally giving us a chance to draw a quick breath.

As a child, Denise Mina and her family were always on the move. Due to her father’s job, she lived in 21 places in 18 years. Perhaps that’s why she can so deftly imbue her novels with a gilt-edged sense of place – it was an inspired idea to move this story out of Glasgow and into a small, and small-minded, seaside town. The feeling of claustrophobia and closed-in community is palpable  and you can almost hear the call of the seagulls and the lap of the waves. I love it when a place becomes almost an extra character – and here we have the bonus of the story being set in the run up to the vote for Scottish Independence, with almost every character showing their colours at some point or other.

Central to it all, like a tiny island at the eye of a storm, is Alex Morrow, and as the case swirls and eddies she also has to deal with a tidal wave of personal issues too. As she battled to keep both her head and her job, I found myself growing to like this wholly realistic, beleaguered police officer more and more. A book to be savoured.

You can read our interview with Denise Mina here, or discover more Scottish crime fiction here.


CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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