The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina
Exploring family life, justice, gender and class, Denise Mina is in recognizable territory in her ninth novel The End of the Wasp Season. This foray into the intricacies of a murder investigation based in Glasgow and Kent is the second to feature no-nonsense female Detective Sergeant Alex Morrow, although readers won’t have to be familiar with her first outing in Still Midnight in order to understand or enjoy what’s on offer. Mina’s heroine is reminiscent of Marge in the Coen brothers’ Fargo: the fact that she’s five months pregnant with twins won’t stop her from capably sidestepping the petty power plays and social prejudices of her own staff and witnesses alike as she susses out the motivations of people around her in order to collar the perpetrator of an especially brutal crime.
This crime – the murder of a young woman called Sarah Erroll in her home in a wealthy suburb of Glasgow – opens the novel. The action begins from Erroll’s perspective, so the tension of the tale comes not so much from attempting to work out whodunit, but rather from whether Morrow will be successful in rooting out the culprit, despite trying circumstances.
Tied up in the unravelling mess are a number of contrasting families: a brood of four living in Castlemilk brought up by single mother and friend from Morrow’s past, Kay Murray; the exorbitantly wealthy but unhappy wife and children of vicious, failed Kent banker Lars Anderson; and the shady side of Morrow’s own criminal family roots, from which she is seeking an escape. Unlike Fargo, there is little to laugh about here. Suicide, theft, madness and murder all feature. We’re taken into the callous world of instantly disposable sex workers and shown family life that’s at best brutal, at worst indifferent, as Mina weaves comparisons between the way the murderer literally stamps the life out of his victim and the way egocentric banker Lars Anderson has been able to trample all over the savings and dreams of strangers, as well as the feelings of his own family. But there are also moments of love and hope to be found. “The babies were leaping hard on her pelvis,” Morrow notices at one point, “cheerleaders for life, telling her not to give up, not to get sucked down.” Strong women, with their capacity for unselfish love and a day’s hard toil – the examples of Morrow, Kay Murray and perhaps surprisingly, Sarah Erroll herself – are all held up as worthy of admiration in a damaged, greed-driven world.
The danger is that this can all become rather simplistic and moralising: with women being declared the good guys and men the bad; wealth the sure sign of a hollow heart and slender means the lot of the honest and true. Fortunately, Mina throws in just enough exceptions to the rule in order to keep things ticking over and so the marriage of a reasonably suspenseful plot with social commentary as well as a degree of realism is largely a success. She has a skill for character too, deftly moving between a trio of quite distinct perspectives – DS Morrow, her old friend Kay Murray, and Thomas Anderson, the son of banker Lars – in order to build pace. Add to these accomplishments her ability to turn a phrase, and it’s easy to see why Denise Mina’s work is held in high regard by many.
The End of the Wasp Season
Orion, rrp £12•99, 416pp