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British Mysteries

Field of Blood, Denise Mina, Little Brown, $7.50.

Several years ago, Steve Hamilton mentioned at a signing that one of his favorite books was Garnet Hill, by Denise Mina. Ever since then, this very dark Scottish author has been a steady seller for us, but I hadn't read any of her books until Field of Blood. Boy, have I been missing out. There's so many great things about Field of Blood it's hard to know where to start. The story of two boys who brutally murder an even smaller boy, the first chapter is very difficult to take, but the focus of the rest of the book is on chubby, smart, ambitious Paddy Meehan, a secretly lapsed Catholic who works as a copy girl at the Scottish Daily News in hard bitten Glasgow. The newsroom is filled with equally hard bitten, skeptical seen it all types - mostly men - who won't give Paddy the time of day, thanks to her lowly status.

In every way this is an unusual twist on any kind of mystery trope. Paddy is no-one's idea of an insider; she's poor and unconnected, and the police seem to hate her. With all that against her, the reader of course ends up firmly on her side. Her slight connection to the sensational "Baby Brian" case is the fact that her fiancee, Sean, is a cousin to one of the accused child killers. When she confesses this to a female reporter at the paper, the reporter is horrified that Paddy is too "honorable" to use her "in" and get an exclusive with the killer. When the other woman takes Paddy's tip and runs with it - unbeknownst to Paddy - Paddy ends up being completely ostracized by both her family and her fiancee. Thus begins Paddy's real journey, and the journey of the book.

The story in the present is interspersed with a story from the past - the story of safecracker Paddy Meehan who went to jail for murder and who was sprung, cleared of all charges, by an enterprising journalist. (This story, by the way, is true, and Mina has an afterword that talks about the real Paddy Meehan). It's what inspired the Paddy Meehan we are reading about to want to become a journalist herself, and as she begins her halting investigation into the Baby Brian case - a case where she is sure the two boys have been set up in one way or another - she begins to discover the things that really are important to her. Marriage and church - not so much; work and an interest in it - everything. When she meets another young reporter who was formed by Woodward and Bernstein (as she was herself) her journey takes off like a rocket because she has a partner.

Because Paddy is unused to the trust of men - always having thought herself unattractive, if not ugly - she doesn't quite know how to take the assistance of Terry Hewitt, and it's only one of many stumbling blocks. She nevertheless reaches the truth of the matter in a narrative that's richly layered with the wretched social conditions of working class Glasgow and the small expectations that most of Paddy's family have for her. Denise Mina is perhaps a less sentimental writer even than Ruth Rendell, however, and none of the story plays for unearned emotion. Denise Mina writes this story with her head, not with her heart, yet it's her portrait of the strangely appealing Paddy Meehan that's somehow indelible. It's what will stay with you after finishing this book by a writer who seems powered by a very intense energy that pays off in terms of narrative spark. Any fan of good writing, wonderful characters and a rich setting shouldn't miss this - even if it does make a visit to Glasgow seem less than appealing.

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