If I were telling a friend, particularly a mystery-resistant friend, about this book, I would say something like, “It’s a detective story, but more. It’s a real novel.” And that goes for all nine of Denise Mina’s brilliant thrillers, which are crammed with tough, imperfect, troubled, tender, memorable people who curse a lot and mostly live and work in Glasgow.
"THE END OF THE WASP SEASON... is a fascinating study in how the elements of identity --- gender, class, family --- make us think and act. Like the best of the mystery genre, it holds up a mirror to society."
Three bleak, apparently unrelated scenes open the book: a murder so horrifying that veteran detectives can hardly look at the body; a working-class single mother contemplating her three kids; and a police inspector attending her unloving and unloved father’s funeral. Maybe it is a Scottish characteristic to leaven dourness with humor, bleak realism with hope and joy. In any case, although THE END OF THE WASP SEASON is not a cheerful tale, there are redemptive moments. Mina’s gift for mixing intricate puzzles with subtle writing means that the reader is both intellectually and emotionally engaged.
So many police procedurals are headlined by a male detective: often tired, rumpled, neurotic, and/or ordinary, but a man nonetheless. In Mina’s work, women take center stage, and not just as victims. Alex Morrow, the Detective Inspector in this novel, is a triple-threat feminist heroine: married, heavily pregnant with twins, and in charge of a whole squad of cops. She reminds me of Prime Suspect’s acerbic yet vulnerable Jane Tennison (played by the peerless Helen Mirren; an American remake starring Maria Bello starts this fall) in that she must prove --- to the men and to her insufferable media-hound boss --- that a female body is no bar to police work: “Everyone was worried about her doing the job because she was pregnant,” Morrow fumes. “They made ludicrous suggestions that her pregnancy might make her forgetful, emotional, incapable.”
THE END OF THE WASP SEASON is the second fictional outing for Morrow (the first was STILL MIDNIGHT), and she remains gritty and quick-witted --- no pushover. But we also see her softened and elated: small, heart-catching moments when the twins stir inside her body or she anticipates going home to her husband. That they lost their first child to meningitis only makes this pregnancy more important, and scarier. Morrow wants her gender not to matter when she’s on the job, but her pregnancy --- and her compassion --- get in the way.
Morrow has escaped her own marginal, even criminal family, but in the course of investigating the murder, she encounters a childhood friend, Kay Murray, who cleaned house for the mother of Sarah Erroll, the dead woman, and still works for her neighbors. There is ambiguity as well as warmth in the two women’s relationship. Morrow is now squarely in proper middle-class territory; she hates any whiff of the past and resists attempts by her drug-dealing brother to get her to help his delinquent son. Kay, however, still has to struggle for respectability. And although her practical attitude and unstinting love for her children make her tremendously likable, the reader is not sure if she can be trusted. At one point, she and her kids even become suspects.
Morrow and Kay, linked in ways both obvious and not, form two principal narrative threads. The third concerns Thomas, a 14-year-old boy shipped off to a Scottish boarding school by his rich English parents. With his school