Detect and survive

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 38, Winter 1998/99.

At first glance, Denise Mina’s novel Garnethill follows a classic detective story formula: an ordinary woman, Maureen O’Donnell, wakes up with a hangover one morning to find, in her living room, the murdered body of the boyfriend she was just about to finish with. Viewed by the police as an obvious suspect, Maureen must turn detective and find out who really killed him.

But this detective has a particular history, unusual in fiction if not in fact: she’s a survivor of sexual abuse by her father, and of the mental health system to which the effects of his abuse consigned her. Most members of her family regard her as still ‘mental’ and deny that the abuse ever happened. It is Maureen’s understanding that sexual abuse is real which leads her to the truth, and inspires her to fight back.

Garnethill — the title refers to a district in central Glasgow — is Denise Mina’s first full-length novel, written while she was also doing research for her PhD on women, mental illness and the justice system. The book got a good reception from the critics and its first hardback edition quickly sold out; it has been serialised on radio and optioned for TV. Here Denise talks to Debbie Cameron about combining popular fiction with feminist politics.

Debbie Cameron: Tell me how Garnethill came to be written.

Denise Mina: I was interested in writing anyway, I’d written comedy before — really bad comedy and none of it had been bought…before that I was writing for the BBC and doing stuff on radio. But when I started writing the book, what I wanted to do was use detective fiction, a kind of narrative that’s really easy to read and very engaging, to present a different kind of narrative, a narrative about very disempowered people becoming empowered.

Debbie: A different kind of narrative from what?

Denise: I’d been reading Patricia Cornwell [American author of a detective series featuring forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta]. She’s got a really popular, big-selling thing with a major lesbian character, Scarpetta’s niece Lucy, and that’s fine, her sexuality is not an issue at all; but at the same time she keeps talking about these criminals as evil…

Debbie: yes, her attitude to law and order’s pretty right wing…

Denise: she’s unbelievably right wing. So you’ve got millions of people all over the world reading it and saying ‘oh well they must be evil then, because she knows so much about science’.

Debbie: So did you want to use the popular form of detective fiction to make political points, take a more social view of crime?

Denise: Yes. Maybe I’m just obsessed with politics, but otherwise I think it’s just self-aggrandisement, and there’s not much point in that. When you think about books like, you know, Jeffrey Archer’s: there’s absolutely no point to them, but nothing doesn’t have an angle. There’s no such thing as not having an angle. And I think it’s good to be very aware and use that, as a medium for getting these ideas into people’s heads.

Debbie: What sort of ideas did you want to get across in Garnethill?

Denise: You know, the idea that someone apparently with a mental illness can still have a point of view, can be interested in politics or current affairs, they’re not just passive, agentless people that things happen to —

Debbie: — and you don’t need to have a PhD to be a detective —

Denise: Exactly! In everyday life people are always having to work out what’s going on.

Debbie: If you read a lot of detective fiction, not just feminist but mainstream stuff as well, there’s more and more examples where the story turns on sexual abuse, but you often feel it’s a perfunctory gesture, exploitative even; it’s there because it’s supposedly ‘topical’ and also because it’s an easy way to solicit moral outrage — put in a bunch of so called ‘paedophiles’ — or drug dealers, they’re another easy target. But what I felt about Garnethill, you’re not using the issue of abuse in that way, it’s far more integral. For instance it’s important not only in the mystery part of the story but also in the part about Maureen’s relationship with her family, who are basically denying her experience of abuse. You don’t treat that as just a subplot. So there are two stories, one of them is the formulaic detective story but the other one isn’t…

Denise: Well you know I’m very interested in False Memory Syndrome? I wanted to use the effects of FMS on the ground and get that into the story as well, because it’s going to be hugely damaging to a lot of women. Also, the idea that people who abuse are external, they’re not part of families and no-one knows these people, they’re always loners and that kind of thing, I wanted to deal with that as well by having the two storylines. Because it is familiar, it is people we know, and it is integrated into people’s life stories.

Debbie: Another unusual thing is that your main character is a survivor. You don’t find many survivors in most detective stories which touch on sexual abuse. You get traumatised victims and the heroic men and women who rescue them, but you don’t get characters who were abused in the past and who’ve dealt with it in various ways —

Denise: There was a film recently, I read the script, and this woman had been sexually abused, she had been raped, and she was saved by a man. The abuse story is always that the woman is saved by finding a better man, it’s not that she doesn’t need a man, it’s that she had the wrong man. That’s always the bottom line in these stories, that the wrong man got her.

I was reading a book called More than Victims — it’s about how battered women’s syndrome has developed in the US, how women have to be presented as utter victims, because the courts won’t hear anything else. So it doesn’t work for Black women, who tend not to be total victims, who tend to have external networks of support, or not necessarily to live with the bastard — and these women cope, they’re not victims, they’re survivors. Agencies dealing with domestic violence are saying, these are extraordinary people who survive terrible circumstances, and they should not have to be presented as terribly damaged to get justice.

Debbie: This overlaps with what you do in your academic research, doesn’t it? You’re interested in the way women get medicalised or pathologised…

Denise: My research is really about the ascription of mental illness to female offenders — the way the labelling process works for women as opposed to men. They’re part of different social worlds, they’re being labelled with completely different things because of different circumstances, and so they’re processed by the justice system in completely different ways.

One of the things I became interested in is the way people’s agency is completely ripped away from them by attaching a medical label. Most people have some experience of maybe mild depression, or the grieving process: making that process technical by giving it a medical label takes away from how social it is, you know, the fact that almost everybody experiences this and people help one another through these things. I was interested in creating a character who’s very autonomous —

Debbie: Maureen, the survivor of abuse who has been through the mental health system —

Denise: Yes. Also the fact that she’s got pals, because in detective stories they don’t usually have pals!

Debbie: ‘Down these mean streets a man must walk alone…’

Denise: Alone, exactly! Quite often what you get now — with some exceptions — are female detectives who are men, really. They don’t have the things which are recognisably female, like the fact that lots of women connect with lots of other women and form networks of support: you just don’t recognise that in detective stories. But I don’t think you have to make your central character a loner for a sense of isolation and alienation to be there. I think most women are very alienated and do often feel quite isolated anyway, even though they have those networks. It’s not about not having pals. It’s about being a member of an underclass.

Debbie: I think you do get women friends in feminist detective fiction, but sometimes they’re very implausible. I’m thinking of Val McDermid’s heterosexual detective Kate Brannigan, who has, you know, a lesbian friend, a Black friend…it seems like a way of bringing those women’s experiences into the story which is totally artificial.

Denise: It’s like the United Nations! You know the character Benny in Garnethill? Before he became a bad guy he was going to be gay, but then I thought no, that’s falling into the trap, that Brookside horror —

Debbie: But you went to some trouble to have likeable male characters, didn’t you?

Denise: Yeah, you could tell that, could you?

Debbie: Especially with the character Liam, Maureen’s brother — a likeable drug dealer!

Denise: It’s all women that have said to me, I thought it was nice that you had some nice men.

Debbie: I didn’t say I thought it was nice, I just said I thought —

Denise: That I’d made an effort! I think what women really want to read is stories where all the women are good and all the men are bad, because we’ve read so many stories where all the men are good and all the women are bad. But somehow that’s not a legitimate desire, you know?

Debbie: I’ll stay agnostic about the men, but one thing I did like was that not all the survivors, the abused women, are supposed to be likeable: one of them, Siobhain —

Denise: — is a pain in the arse, really.

Debbie: Suffering doesn’t ennoble you?

Denise: Exactly. If you’ve been involved in voluntary work or whatever, or in your community, you picture someone and you assume they’re always going to stay in that position. And it’s really good for people who are being pitied or looked down on to be obnoxious: they should be obnoxious! It’s not a real connection between people, to pity someone and look after them and expect them always to stay passive. In friendships you have to be equal, you can’t be submissive and stay submissive. Siobhain’s going to be in the next two books as well; she becomes a sort of family member. Just because she’s not been well doesn’t mean she has to be receptive to everything everybody gives her all the time.

Debbie: So you’re writing two more books and they’re related to the first one?

Denise: In the next two books the family theme follows all the way through, because Maureen’s father has come back to Glasgow. So in the next book Maureen has to go away, leave Glasgow, and in the book after that she comes back and faces up to the family. Her sister gets pregnant in the second book and has a baby and she feels she can’t leave her father there with the baby, she’s got to come back and deal with it. But there’s a mystery in the second one and the third one as well.

Debbie: So generically they’re crime fiction?

Denise: Yes they are, but there’s only three of them, I only want to do three. Otherwise you get into Miss Marple country, with people dropping dead all around her all the time, yet no one’s suspicious…

Debbie: Garnethill’s going to be adapted for television.

Denise: Yes, it’s been optioned, but it’s a long series of events. What happens is you have to get it developed first, then it goes into production, and it can take anything from two years to 20 years or not happen at all, there are lots of fences it can fall at. But so far it’s going really well, we’ve got a good production company.

Debbie: Are you worried about transferring it to another medium? Are you involved in adapting it yourself?

Denise: I’m writing the script. When I met them before they optioned it, I wasn’t too sure about it: I thought, if it goes to TV it’s going to be really schmaltzy shite, even the casting could alter the balance of the thing dramatically. But they’re very keen to keep all the family narrative, and keep the character quite — I think she can be quite unsympathetic in lots of ways, and I want to keep that, because I don’t think you get realistic characterisation when somebody’s right all the time, and never annoying or just cheeky to somebody. So I was a wee bit worried about it…but they’re very keen to keep it true to the book, that was part of the deal. We’ll see, anyway.

Debbie: Another theme that runs through the book concerns a sexual abuse scandal in a psychiatric hospital. As well as criticising the way women get pathologised, you’re critical of the mental health system as corrupt and abusive itself.

Denise: I think that is a big, big issue. As long as we say that people we label mentally ill are less autonomous than other people, they don’t have the right to be obnoxious and they don’t have the right to disagree, as long as mentally ill people are treated as less human than the rest of us, as having fewer civil rights than the rest of us, things like that — rapes of mentally ill people — are inevitably going to happen. I think we need to find more constructive ways of dealing with people who are mentally ill, rather than treating them as childlike or as people with no autonomy. There are other models we could build on. It doesn’t have to be a deficit model. They can be different without being ‘us but less’. As long as they’re us but less, then they’re very very vulnerable to abuse.

Debbie: Have you worked in the mental health system?

Denise: When I left school I worked for four years with psychogeriatrics in nursing homes, as an auxiliary nurse. I really liked it actually, it was really good. But there was a case of abuse in one of the homes I was working in. And it was never investigated because the patient was senile. That was a female nurse, and she just got sacked. There was another place, that we tried to have closed down because they were mistreating patients quite badly, locking them in their rooms at night. The case fell because we weren’t good witnesses: we’d both been sacked, for complaining about the fact that they were locking patients in their rooms. That home’s still operating. And they were drugging them up so these old ladies could hardly get up to go to the toilet by themselves.

Debbie: Later on you went to university and got a law degree, didn’t you? Did you ever practise law?

Denise: No I didn’t. I was doing the diploma you have to do before you can go into practice, and in this tutorial we were talking about corporate loyalty and we had a big debate about corporate loyalty: everybody said you should be loyal to the corporation, and I just thought, I’m going to die if I stay with these people. I went off and got a job as a barmaid, dropped out; I just thought, this is a wank, I’m not doing this for the rest of my fucking life.

Debbie: So why did you decide to go back and do research?

Denise: I was interested in the subject; but also, with a law degree — not so much now but certainly at that time — you just learned things by rote. I went to university looking for an education and I felt like I’d left without one. I’d just started learning how to question things, and I wanted to carry that on.

Debbie: Do you think that questioning things in the way you’re doing now, by writing popular fiction, can make a political difference in reality?

Denise: I think it definitely can. You know, literature is full of instances where books have presented things and that becomes a narrative norm, and it leads to a change in public opinion. I think that in the grand scheme of things, one book won’t do it, but a TV show might do something. Even having a narrative about False Memory on TV showing FMS in a negative light and showing how it can be an excuse to deny women’s experiences — that could have such a big effect on the culture generally, just giving that idea currency. It’s worth doing it just for that.

Debbie: So if the aim was to give feminist ideas more currency, did you make a strategic decision to publish with a mainstream publisher rather than a feminist press?

Denise: Yes. My agent is also Andrea Dworkin’s agent, and we were talking about polemics, and she said this is the best thing to do, if you really want to make a statement. I can make all these points in my thesis, but who’s going to read that? Not many people: it’s going to be me and my pals and other empowered articulate women who have career structures and supportive networks around them.

Bantam was the first publisher we went to, and they’ve got a committee of men and women, and it got knocked back because the men didn’t like it. But the women liked it, and what they did was they re-formed, regrouped and took it back to the editorial meeting. These women, they’re really feisty, one of them phoned me up and said: ‘it was the men against the women, and the women won this time, darling’.

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