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Probing The Psyche Of Glasgow's Mean Streets

In Glasgow, says Denise Mina, "most people know someone who's been to prison."
Vicki Barker/NPR
In Glasgow, says Denise Mina, "most people know someone who's been to prison."
Glasgow's architecture is a visual reminder of the city's more stately days.
Vicki Barker/NPR /
Glasgow's architecture is a visual reminder of the city's more stately days.

Wherever you go in Glasgow, seagulls cartwheel high above, calling out caustic, airborne editorials on the gentrified Scottish city center below — and on the slums that sprawl around it.

One of those slums is Easterhouse, a public-housing project hemmed in by highways. As crime writer Denise Mina describes it in her novel, The Dead Hour, it's one of the roughest ghettos in Europe:

This is Mina's turf. Her vivid, fast-paced crime novels are peopled by its small-time criminals, its battered women and the shifty journalists who toil at its failing papers. They're characters that Mina — a former criminologist and long-time Glasgow resident — knows well.

'Like A Bomb Had Dropped'

Several of Mina's books are set in the 1980s. That's when this city — once as dynamic an economic powerhouse as Chicago — was convulsed by the economic restructuring under Margaret Thatcher. Factories, mines and shipyards closed; thousands of men would never work again. The city itself was crumbling.

"There [was] beautiful, neo-Gothic architecture with big bushes growing out of it," says Mina. "It was like a bomb had dropped."

It was also the decade when Mina — then a broke, unemployed high-school dropout — returned to the city of her birth.

"No one was defined by their jobs, which I loved. In Glasgow, people said: 'DO you work?' — which I thought was very kind," she recalls.

Mina began graduate studies focusing on mental illness in female offenders, but reality eventually drove her to fiction.

"I discovered really interesting things about what happens when people are mentally ill, [and] how they're treated afterwards," she says. "And I thought, 'If I write a Ph.D. thesis about this, no one's ever going to read it. But if I put it in a crime fiction novel, lots of people will read it!'"

Heroism Redefined

So Mina created Maureen O'Donnell, a psychiatric patient and survivor of sexual abuse whose married lover is found with his throat slit in her living room. O'Donnell is the heroine of Mina's Garnethill trilogy. The first book in the series, also called Garnethill, won a Crime Writers' Association award for best first novel.

"I think it really chimed with people that [Maureen] uses rational deduction to find things out, even though she has a history of depression. In fact, people with depression are better at that, because they're less blinkered by hope," says Mina.

Mina's characters become so real to her that she once tried to look one of them up on Facebook. On a recent tour of the city, she pointed to a big rambling house where Liam, Maureen's drug dealing brother, "lives."

Drug dealers, drunks, psychiatric patients — if the heroes and heroines of her books tend to be of the unsung variety, that's deliberate. Anyone can run into a burning building, says Mina, but actually living with dignity with schizophrenia for 30 years is "breathtakingly brave."

"That's the kind of heroes I want to talk about, ordinary people who do amazing things day to day, but we never celebrate them," says Mina. "A drunk woman is no one's icon. A violent woman is no one's icon. I always wanted to take characters who were disregarded and look at their perspective."

Mina is 40 (but looks 25), listens to heavy metal music and is proud of her working-class roots. Her readers, meanwhile, tend to be professional women in their 50s. Despite their differences, the author has been surprised to discover a profound sense of kinship with her fans:

"I did a reading for four people in L.A., and we could have lived together — we could have set up a commune! We could hardly speak at the end of it, there was such a connection. We were just sort of pattin' one another's elbows. And as the books get bigger and bigger, I know those people aren't going to come up and talk to me at the end. But it's one of the nicest things that's ever happened to me in my life, is knowing that they're out there."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vicki Barker
Vicki Barker was UPR's Moab correspondent from 2011 - 2012.