Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Red Road (Alex Morrow #4)The Red Road by Denise Mina
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Denise Mina is not just a great mystery writer and the "tartan noir" flag bearer. She is a great writer, without the "mystery" qualifier. Her "Garnethill" is one of my favorite books - ostensibly a crime novel, it is a deep and wise piece of real literature about the human condition. "The End of the Wasp Season" and "Gods and Beasts" , although flawed, transcend the usual limitations of the mystery genre and contain some breathtakingly beautiful fragments of prose.

Glasgow, 1997. The night that Princess Diana died. Rose Wilson, a fourteen-year old prostitute kills her pimp. The time switches to the present (2012 or 2013), and we meet Alex Morrow testifying in a case of a career criminal. Alex learns that his prints have been found on a gun used for murder that happened while he was locked up in jail. The plot alternates between 1997 and now for about a third of the novel. The gruesome events from the past influence the present, and Ms. Mina masterfully untangles the web of threads at the end of the novel.

I do not think "The Red Road" is among Mina's better books; getting through the first 200 or so pages required hard work and dedication. The rich tapestry of threads is intimidating - too many characters and too many connections. The world is indeed extremely complex, but Ms. Mina handled the complexity so much better in her other novels.

The complexity of the plot is not the main reason for my disappointment. More importantly, I have been unable to find anything in the novel that transcends the plot. "The Red Road" is all about the plot. True, it is a very clever and skillfully constructed plot, but I have not learned anything new about Glasgow, Scotland, or the Scottish people (aside from the Pakistani connection). I have not learned anything new about Alex Morrow; she is exactly as I know her from the previous books. "The Red Road" is just a good mystery, and I have been accustomed to expect more than that from Ms. Mina.

The author's writing, usually stellar, is not always up to par this time. There are two jarring fragments of prose (one involving Buchenwald reference and the other about Aileen Wuornos) that indicate that maybe Ms. Mina did not have enough time to read what she wrote. On the positive side, "The Red Road" is one of the precious few books that are better at the end than at the beginning.

Summary: a so-so book from a great writer. Ms. Mina has set the bar so high that she has difficulties clearing it.

Two and a half stars.

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