Denise Mina. Blood Salt Water. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2015.
Mina has the uncanny ability to portray disturbed individuals as a vital component of the human race. Or maybe their struggles to express themselves become intuitive with us through her guidance. Although that's not what the story is "about." In the west coast Scottish town of Helensburgh, drama is unfolding that stretches from London to South America. Glasgow detective Alex Morrow of previous Mina novels cautiously works her way through a missing persons case in which she is being monitored by the highest level of Police Scotland for their own purposes. Her capacity for suffering fools and upper middle-class attitudes has not improved and her regard for her criminal brother Danny is still deeply ambivalent, yet she conceals a well of compassion for the unfortunates amongst us.
Identifying a dead body plunges Morrow further into connecting an extensive money-laundering enterprise to the picture-perfect town. She does not inevitably meet every character the reader meets: Tommy the thug, Murray the single father, and Susan Grierson, recently returned to her roots. She does interview Robin, live-in boyfriend of Roxanna the Spanish woman; Cole the stoned ex-con; Boyd the chef; and Delahunt the lawyer, among others. But it's Iain Fraser who dominates the entire mood of the book for me. Beautifully constructed and written, never a misplaced word! Brava, Mina, I am so in tune.
Morrow felt herself go very stiff, as if a spider, too big to swat, was running across her back (41)
She found that anger was just fear with its makeup on ... (49)
"So," she said vaguely, "d'you have a job for me?"
Very American. Forthright and unembarrassed. Quite unattractive.
"You can't need the money?" He looked at the teenage waitresses on the floor and dropped his voice to a murmur. "Miss Grierson, the money I pay is crap."
She smiled. "Call me Susan, please. No, but I need to do something. I can't bear the thought of working in a charity shop. The people in them are all my age. I like a mix."
Boyd grinned at her: every second shop in the town was a charity shop. They were staffed by retired people volunteering for a few hours a week. Most of their stock came from post-mortem house clearances and the ring of old folk's homes that circled the town, ornaments and personal effects the families didn't want back, after.
He leaned in and whispered, "It's the half-dead selling the knick-knacks of the dead to the almost dead."
They both tittered, she with shock at his maliciousness, he with discomfort. He'd said it often but he wished he hadn't said it now. (16)
Morrow sat with her back against the wall, calm observer in a blizzard of clammy panic. Three of the most highly-paid, powerful men in Police Scotland had been called in. Heavy personnel. As if to justify their places, each took turns monologuing about mistakes others should avoid, things they should be afraid of. A day's wages from each of them would have paid to keep one of the rural stations they were shutting open for a week. The power differential between Morrow and the rest of the room was so steep she felt she could be sitting in her pants and no one would notice. Most DIs would give half their pensions to be here. (39)
Small town blues:
While he was away, at university, on his travels, he'd cast himself unhappy in Helensburgh, trapped by the oppressive propriety of his home life, the coldness of his father. The dry Sunday School days, crayoned pictures of Jesus, the smog of family history and the weight of expectation. They were the good Frasers, the righteous elect. His mother thought that everything that went her way was part of God's plan. Everything else was the work of Catholics and Anglicans. (93-4)
Shriver has embraced many subjects in her writings, none more fiercely entertaining than this: population control. Sounds dull? Uh-uh. Actually first published in 1994, a trio of experienced demographers and NGO aid workers in Nairobi, Kenya, face off over different ways―natural or contrived―to slow the world's alarming human growth rate. AIDS was still in ascendance then; Ebola was scarcely on anyone's radar outside of Africa. Eleanor slogs away dispensing contraception education. Calvin thinks a designer virus is the answer to mankind's wilful ignorance and brutishness. Wallace is content to give up, believing the projected hordes and ecological environments will adapt to future crowding. Superior minds will somehow save the day.
The protagonists are fictional but the statistics are not, emphasis depending on the project that seeks funding. It's a scathing and crazy-ass satire of science, but also "a deliciously wicked story" in the author's own words.* Eleanor the humanist and Calvin the sociopath, in a shaky relationship shadowed by his former African lover, fence each other with arguments even as his lab and calculations work to produce a selective killer. It's also an absorbing portrait of Kenya and Africa in general. Shriver is brilliant, no question. One- or two-line quotes may be best to illustrate some of the gravity and lunacy.
* The 2007 edition has an appendix of author's comments.
Oh, he'd lost some hair, which lengthened his forehead and made him look more intelligent; and the weather had leathered him, for here he was seamless and by the time she met him he had already slipped into that indeterminate somewhere between thirty-five and sixty that certain men seem able to maintain until they're ninety-two and of which women, who have no such timeless equivalent, are understandably jealous. (29)
Trying to avert the world's population from doubling in sixty years by supervising seminars of twenty-five on "Adolescent Empowerment," Eleanor felt much as any scientist might if, concerned about the rising sea level from polar melting, he spent his days at the shore spooning the ocean into a paper cup. (153-4)
"You should hear Wallace Threadgill gibber about hybrid crops and the exciting future of intensive agriculture: multiple storeys of artificially lit fields like high-rise car-parks. How likely is that, in a country where just a dial tone is an act of God?" (25)
"No, we will be fruitful and multiply ourselves into an open sewer. Whether ten people can eke out a few years in eight feet square is not the question." (38)Calvin's reputation was as biodegradable as egg-carton styrofoam. (275)
He set up camp on a stool by the fire, scanning the gnoshing, tittering, tinselly crowd as they tried to numb their agony with spirit of the wrong sort. (43)
"I lost my livelihood but I inherited the earth." (53)
John Corey saved New York City from disaster in the last book and now he does it again in predictable fashion. Demoted to following suspicious members of the UN's diplomatic corps, he injects himself into a secret, cataclysmic Russian plot. Yet Corey has lost some of his edge, personally and professionally. His latest partner on watch, Tess Faraday, sticks to him like superglue. The first sixty pages go by, filling space, before anything happens. Eventually, boats, bombs, and bloodbath are involved. While the message seems to be think Cold War again, most of the evil characters are caricatures and some of the action defies credibility. Russians or Islamic terrorists, which are the worst threat?
As Corey's life seems to be in flux, maybe it's DeMille wondering what to do with his star character. He's not as amusing somehow, in the ominous absence of his FBI wife Kate. And you can only prevent Word War Three so many times. The motivations spurring different individuals to assist him are often fuzzy. It's typical large-scale adventure, desperate times, but not one of DeMille's best. Definitely useful, though, for learning fuck you in Russian.
The Manhattan Project was coming home. (120)
Apparently whoever was running this operation in Washington was trying to play it down the middle; stay calm and carry on, but be prepared to kiss your asses good-bye. (270)
"Remember," I continued helpfully, "anything worth shooting is worth shooting twice. Ammo is cheap. And if your shooting stance is good, you're probably not moving fast enough."
Tess nodded, then glanced at me.
I went on, "When approaching a suspect, watch their hands. Hands kill. In God we trust. Everyone else, keep your hands where I can see them. Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everyone you meet."
Tess again glanced at me, probably wondering how anyone so clever got plugged three times. I wonder about that myself. Shit happens. (28)
Petrov had always said, "Believe in yourself and believe in the cause of a new Russian Empire. The Islamists believe in their god, and that makes them dangerous, but not always competent. The Americans believe in their superiority, but they have no goal other than to remain at the top. And both sides are obsessed with the other, so when all is said and done it will be Russia that will stand on the corpses of Islam and the West. History is on our side."
And, thought Gorsky, Colonel Petrov had no goal other than to please his father, and to be promoted to his father's rank of general. As for the new Russian Empire, Gorsky didn't know how much Petrov believed in that, but Colonel Petrov believed in himself, and that made working with him easier than working with a man who believed in a cause or a god. (110)