A.N. Wilson uncovers crimes in schools, cities and caves
“A bad mystery is the easiest of all books to write; a good mystery is among the most difficult.” So writes P.D. James in an essay which her old publishers have issued, attached to her nicely-turned short story The Part-Time Job (Faber &?Faber, £3.50; Tablet price £3.15) about a victim of school bullying taking his highly satisfactory revenge. This well-designed little stocking-filler of a book is a tribute to James in her centenary year. She was a self-conscious throwback to golden-age writers like Dorothy Sayers and her overweight books always felt a bit like parody to me. She had none of the versatility or ingenuity of Ruth Rendell. But we raise a thankful glass to the memory of a dear old pro who gave pleasure to millions.
Now this is the business! Denise Mina’s The Less Dead (Harvill Secker, £14.99; Tablet price £13.49) is one of the best crime novels I have read in ages. A respectable middle-class woman, a doctor, is pregnant and (she was adopted) goes in search of her birth-mother in Glasgow. It turns out, inevitably, that her 19-year-old mother had been on the game. Like many other young women at the time, 30 years ago, she was murdered.
Once Margo, the doctor, has made contact with the dead mother’s sister, she begins to receive sinister, shockingly abusive, anonymous letters and the reader becomes aware, through a series of short vignettes, that a homicidal maniac is on her trail. This fast-paced, deftly-drawn thriller is also a realistic portrayal of working-class Glasgow and the nightmarish lives of young girls who teeter so easily from unhappy violent childhoods, to drugs, to the quickest, most dangerous way of paying for the drug habit. Denise Mina compellingly catches the tone of voice of angry, abandoned, drug-zonked Glaswegian women.