Denise Mina On Conviction
Note: This interview originally appeared in the July 2019 edition of The Big Thrill, the official magazine of the International Thriller Writers.
For longtime readers of Glasgow-based crime writer Denise Mina, it will come as no surprise that her latest release, Conviction, is one of the finest novels to hit shelves so far this year. Since the release of her debut novel, 1998’s Garnethill, Mina has routinely found herself shortlisted for some of the genre’s most prestigious awards, including wins from the Crime Writers’ Association and Crimefest and nominations for Anthony Awards, the Edgars, and the UK’s National Book Awards.
It’s lofty praise, then, to say that Conviction is Mina’s best work to date. Her new standalone, about a true crime devotee who undertakes her own investigation of a high-profile case, is a fast-paced, moving, and surprisingly funny tour de force that obliterates whatever lines critics have drawn between literary and crime fiction. What begins as a relatively straightforward tale of a woman’s obsession with a mystery not quite solved evolves into a razor-edged meditation on the crucial role that storytelling plays in our lives. Mina’s work always impresses, but Conviction dazzles.
Not long after we meet Anna McLean, her life explodes in spectacular fashion: a casual knock at the door turns out to be Anna’s best friend, arriving to execute a meticulously planned betrayal that leaves Anna’s world in ruins. By the end of the second chapter, Anna has been kicked out of her house and her husband has run off with her best friend, taking Anna’s two young daughters with them. Desperate for a distraction, Anna decides to get to the bottom of a mystery that has captured the national imagination: a supposedly cursed yacht has sunk, killing a family of three. One of the victims, Leon Parker, was an old friend of Anna’s; when a podcaster decides that Leon killed himself and his two children in an act of “family annihilation,” Anna sets out to clear his name. In doing so, though, she inadvertently turns herself into a target—it seems Anna McLean isn’t really Anna McLean, and her past is about to catch up with her.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Anna and her unusual sidekick—an anorexic, vegan musician who was caught in the blast zone when Anna’s life blew up—ultimately solve a crime that authorities couldn’t, but Anna is a different sort of investigator than the ones that often populate Mina’s novels.
“I love her because she’s a bit depressed and this makes her very rational,” Mina says of her offbeat detective. “She isn’t blinded by optimism or hope. All she wants is to be distracted by a story. I think a lot of us understand that need on a really deep level—the desire to be lost in a story that isn’t your own.”
On the eve of her book’s release, Mina took some time to talk with The Big Thrill about the ethics and appeal of true crime, and the genre’s inevitable elevation to the dubious echelons of high art.
Could you give me a little background on Conviction and what might’ve led you to write it?
I wrote a true crime book called The Long Drop and, as part of an interview in which the journalist was uncomfortable with the idea of writing about a real case, he asked me if I’d considered how hurtful it would be if someone involved in the case read it and disagreed with the conclusion. I hadn’t, to my shame, but thought it was a really interesting question. The journalist’s name is Peter Ross by the way, a very good journalist. This generation of true crime fans are only just beginning to grapple with the ethics of it but journalists have had 150 years of experience so they’re worth listening to. So I started to think about it, think about the ethics of, for example, Making a Murderer, and it led me into the idea for the book.
Why do you think true crime is having such a moment right now?
I think it’s as much to do with the appeal of true crime during social upheaval as anything. These stories are so compelling, they matter, they’re about real perils and, maybe best of all, they’re a little bit forbidden. I have a terrible nicotine substitute habit and honestly think if someone told me it was good for me I’d stop at once.
More than a story about crime, Conviction is a story about the power of stories and the telling of them. It made me think about the blurring of the lines between true crime and crime fiction, and how true crime is more about storytelling than reportage. What is that you’re interested in exploring by erasing those lines altogether?
True crime is always about storytelling forms. No true crime story is about a bit of paper being passed from desk to desk or procedural facts like that. It’s always about the people in the story and is shaped to fit the storytelling forms we are familiar with. Realistically, what most of us want is to be told the same story over and over. It’s comforting and affirming. In this sense it can’t be “truth.” It’s a story based in fact.
I listen to a podcast about narrative. It said that storytelling forms are so compelling and appealing to us as humans that the rise of the far right in Europe can be explained by it. Their story is better than the other sides. They have a Leader (hero) with all the answers, Bad Guys (antiheroes), Uniforms (easily identified distinction between goodies and baddies), and a Solution (build a wall, ban Muslims, etc.).
Conviction is filled with wonderful little teasers, like “that was before the garroting in the toilet.” They feel like callbacks to the true crime paperbacks I inhaled when I was growing up—they were full of ominous flourishes like that. Was that intentional?
YES! You’re the first person to get that reference! Take a bow!
I love those teasers in old school true crime storytelling; they’re so unpretentious and focused on making the story compelling. There are no subtle hints about plot twists or time-shifting contradictions of fact, it’s just straightforwardly saying “hey, listen, come back after the ads because you won't believe what happens next!” I love that commitment to narrative. I love that it isn’t dressed up as something else.
What took you from writing series to writing standalones?
Standalones are great fun and I always tried to fit them into runs of books, so I would write a series book, a standalone, a series book, a standalone—except for the Alex Morrow series, which was like a series of standalones. They feel less restricting and more dangerous. The protagonist could die! Anything could happen!
I used to be a horror journalist, and I grew to loathe the term "elevated horror"—it reeks of classism, and I don’t see why low art can’t be just as powerful as high art. Do you have a similar reaction when someone draws a distinction between literary fiction and crime fiction?
The high art/low art distinction is an interesting one. I’ve never read a justification for the high art/low art distinction that wasn’t just class-ridden nonsense.
I like low art forms because a) they have an audience I want to talk to, and b) if you’re interested in politics (with a small “p”) that’s where you should be working: the audience is empowered, know their subject, and are engaged. High art forms tend to have quite a passive audience. I remember an opera audience booing a director (Fidelio on segues—awful) and it was thrilling!
The categories change all the time. Shakespeare wrote sonnets because theater wasn’t considered high art. I remember angry debates about whether or not cinema and photography could be “art.”
What seems to make the difference between a low art and a high art form is profitability. If it makes money it can’t be bad. There are writers who sell incredibly well and are taken seriously but their work is so bad I have actually screenshot some passages to reread when my confidence flags. Their work is shit but they sell, win prizes, etc.
Having written comics when it wasn’t fashionable and crime before it was an academic subject, I confidently predict that true crime will ascend to the high art form soon. One posh white guy will write a true crime book/make a podcast/documentary using all the tropes and techniques devised by plebs like us and get the credit.
How much can you say about what you’re working on now? I understand there’s a novel in the works, and also a mysterious true crime project…
It’s called The Less Dead, about a true series of sex worker murders that happened in Glasgow in the 1990s.
It’s basically an examination of the “perfect victim,” why it’s so hard for us, as an audience, to care about the less-perfect than victims who are framed as complicit in their own attacks: the drug addict, the drunk, the sex worker. It came out of a lot of discussions over here about crime writers “killing” white, blonde teenage girls all the time and why this happens. A literary prize has been set up for writers who don’t have those sorts of victims but I don’t think the problem is one of crime fiction “killing” those women. I think the issue is society prioritizing them.
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