Scottish Thriller Plays on a Thoroughly Modern Obsession
‘Conviction’ is a crime novelist’s paean to that modern paraliterary phenomenon, the true crime podcast. “A good podcast can add a glorious multi-world texture to anything,” muses Anna McDonald, a posh Glasgow housewife with a carefully buried past and a swiftly crumbling present. “I’ve resisted an Assyrian invasion while picking up dry-cleaning. I’ve seen justice served on a vicious murderer while buying underpants.”
Scottish author Denise Mina has written three acclaimed series featuring female crime fighters: detective Alex Morrow, reporter Paddy Meehan, and survivor Maureen O’Donnell. But her last book, ‘The Long Drop,’ ventured into true crime, with a genre-busting, semi-fictionalized account of a Glaswegian serial killer. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that ‘Conviction’ works as both a procedural page-turner and a meta meditation on the nature of storytelling.
“It’s primal, the need to tell,” Anna says. “In some cultures, not telling your story is regarded as a sign of mental illness.” All kinds of stories have value, Mina suggests, whether true or fictional; written or oral; novels, folk tales, or ghost stories; Tweets, testimonies, or confessions. The same story will be told differently by different people: “You will have been told this story before, but only in one way and not in this way.” And the protagonist of one story may be a minor, even disposable character in another. As Anna realizes after an unforeseen personal crisis upends her comfortable existence, “I was in the wrong story.” Small wonder she never saw the twist coming.
Anna distracts herself by bingeing a new podcast, “Death and the Dana.” (Tagline: “A sunken yacht, a murdered family on board, a secret yet unsolved.”) She muses: “There is a warmth and a comfort in hearing about people in worse situations than your own. I had not murdered my family and killed myself. I hung onto that.” Earbuds firmly in place, she finds her equilibrium “straddling worlds—from a cocaine-addled Italian supermodel’s autobiography to a cold bathroom in Glasgow.” But when she discovers that an old acquaintance is one of the victims—or is he one of the culprits?—those worlds collide, and her guilty pleasure suddenly feels a lot more meaningful than her own “banal miseries.”
It’s one thing to live vicariously through a podcast; it’s quite another to jump into the action, uninvited, which is exactly what Anna does. Convinced that both the corrupt cops and the earnest podcast host have fingered the wrong people, she sets out, impulsively and recklessly, to track down the real killer (along with that Italian supermodel).
Mina’s previous novels have been largely confined to Glasgow, to the point that the gritty Scottish city feels like a recurring character. But ‘Conviction’ takes to the road early and doesn’t stop, careening from the Highlands to the Basque coast to Venice to Paris in the breezy, breakneck manner of a Dan Brown novel or a Mission Impossible sequel. It’s a departure from Mina’s usual hard-boiled, tightly-plotted Tartan Noir, but one that fits the high-concept, social-media-driven plot.
And Anna is a classic Mina creation—a smart but sometimes unlikable and unreliable heroine that readers will root for nonetheless. Her reluctant partner in globetrotting and amateur sleuthing is a Fin Cohen, a reclusive, anorexic rock star whose every move (and meal) is fodder for the online rumor mill. Anna’s efforts to maintain a low profile keep getting sidetracked by selfie-seeking fans. “The modern mania for photographs is hard on those in hiding,” she grumbles. “If you have a friend with a thin backstory who always wants to take the picture or slides behind the heads of others in group snaps, be kind to them. Camera phones are a bloody menace.”
Amusingly, Fin gets sucked into the podcast in spite of himself, to the point that he launches his own DIY podcast, broadcasting Anna’s rival theories in real time to his vast online following—with near-instantaneous consequences as armed thugs and rabid fans pursue them across Europe.
Anna and Fin’s brushes with mortal danger are balanced by (and sometimes superimposed on) near-absurdist moments of levity. “The podcast episode, ‘We Got Drunk with A Hired Assassin,’ won a number of awards and broke records for downloads,” Anna remarks. Mina masterfully navigates these Hitchcockian shifts in tone as the back-and-forth between the convincingly addictive podcast (complete with bonus online material and an annoying sponsor) and Anna’s own murky backstory—parceled out in similarly tantalizing bites—builds to a satisfying crescendo.
But after this narrative tour de force, the conclusion fizzles. The big reveal will surprise only the least attentive readers. Justice is served, but the body count has skyrocketed. Though Anna’s own story has been laid bare, it is no closer to closure. All she can do is tell it in a new way.