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 schoolmate Squeak, Thomas is involved in Sarah’s murder. We know this in chapter one, which means that the real mystery here is not the identity of the culprits but how Morrow figures it out. Subsequently we learn that Thomas’s father, Lars Anderson, a Madoff-like financier as well as a sadistic fellow when he’s at home, has committed suicide. Thomas is a poignant figure --- life with a drug-addled mother and a disturbed sister isn’t fun --- but perhaps a dangerous one. His link with the psychotic Squeak has a creepy LORD OF THE FLIES feel. The boys, in their different ways, are the living, breathing consequence of bad parenting.
In fact, although there is a lot of emphasis on class --- your accent betrays where you grew up and where your family stands in the economic pecking order --- Mina’s story suggests that good-heartedness and intelligence trump social categories. Kay in particular transcends her difficult situation, in contrast to Thomas’s family, where, despite pots of money, the children are abused and neglected. I found myself rooting for Kay and Thomas, and at least one of them gets what you might call a happy ending.
Yet Alex Morrow is the lynch-pin of the story, the narrator you can rely on without hesitation. She is a tough cop, and a thoughtful one. When the murder victim turns out to have been an escort, a high-end prostitute with a lot of cash in the house, it’s difficult for Morrow --- much less the male cops who work for her --- to care. “Sarah Erroll wasn’t just a battered jigsaw puzzle,” she reminds herself. “She was a young lassie and she was dead.” Morrow embodies the contradictions of her profession: How do you solve crimes and catch bad guys while retaining your humanity? Most of the men don’t even try.
But there’s another policewoman who does. Detective Constable Tamsin Leonard, a new recruit assigned as Morrow’s driver, has noticeable looks, brains and ambition, plus she is a “foreigner” from Surrey (to the Scots, the United Kingdom is not so united). Morrow approves of her while fearing for her survival: “When you get promoted over their heads,” she tells Leonard, “they’ll say it’s because you’re female. You’re smart, that’s against you, so’s being a bird and being English….” She speaks, of course, from experience.
Morrow is the latest in a string of Mina protagonists who are both powerfully smart and stubbornly human. I keep fearing that her novels will dip in quality. They don’t. She is a fabulous writer and an admirably consistent one. THE END OF THE WASP SEASON (the unnecessarily obscure title is my only criticism) 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.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on September 29, 2011