Books of my life by Denise Mina

Growing up, Denise Mina (LLB 1991) thought everybody wanted to be a writer – that it was 'the ultimate thing to be'. After a childhood spent being whisked around Europe, living in 21 different places, Denise came to UofG as a mature student at the School of Law. Now one of the mainstays of Scotland’s Tartan Noir crime writing genre, she’s a prolific writer of novels such as the award-winning 'The Long Drop' and the 'Garnethill' trilogy.

The book I wish I’d written
My first reaction when I read 'The Tell-tale Heart', a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, was “I WISH I’d written that!” He was very brave in the writing choices that he made – it’s modern and the sentences are clipped, and not in any way Gothic. It really reads like somebody describing a schizophrenic episode.

The book I loved most as a child
I couldn’t read for a long, long time as a kid – till I was about nine. I’ve done loads of tests to see if I’m dyslexic, because I can’t spell. But I spoke French and Dutch, my dad was an engineer in North Sea oil and we moved around, so maybe that part of my brain was being used up, I don’t know. I didn’t really read until I went to Majorca on a girls’ holiday. I was very shocked at the hedonistic goings-on – I’d thought we were going to Corfu to see old churches – so I just sat on the roof and read books. One of my friends had brought 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and 'The Master and Margarita' (Mikhail Bulgakov), so I read them both. That changed things massively for me and I thought, reading can be fun – not just something you do for English class.

The book that inspired me
I was reading 'A Tale of Two Cities' (Charles Dickens), my heart was racing at the end, and I was thinking, "This writer is dead, and they're changing my physiology.” I read it now, and it doesn't affect me that much, but I was very, very moved – the intensity of the reading experience when you're that age.

The book I come back to again and again
'Heart of a Dog' (Bulgakov), which is about a street dog, from the point of view of the dog, who is operated on and becomes a human – one who demands housing rights, gets drunk, sings dirty songs … and gets a job as a cat strangler! Then the people who turned him into a human being try to reverse the operation. So it’s an analogy for Stalinism and the Russian Revolution. But it’s very funny. Bulgakov was on a lot of opium, for a bad back – they found traces of it on his manuscripts – and it’s like 'Animal Farm', but messier.

The book that gets me through the hard times
Any good crime novel with a good narrative drive, such as 'Farewell My Lovely' by Raymond Chandler. I think crime fiction really permeates the culture now. We’re in a special section in the bookshop. Or maybe a history book, specifically about the American Civil War, which I’m a bit obsessed about.

The book I like to recommend to others
I bought lots of copies of 'A Girl is a Half-formed Thing', which won the Orange Prize when I was on the jury. It's just amazing, and I think I was worried that it was in danger of being forgotten. It's not just a trauma narrative, it has the complete history of Irish literature in it as well.

The book that changed my mind
It was a play – Frank McGuinness’ 'Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme' – about the Ulster Protestants during the First World War, and it really opened my eyes. I was brought up with one point of view of history, one understanding of partition, and that really blew me away. It made me feel incredibly sympathetic to the other side of the divide and to the traumas they’d experienced. It was beautiful, and it really changed my mind about my reading of a lot of history.

The book that’s my guilty pleasure
I love badly written true crime, such as 'Gangs of Britain' by Wensley Clarkson. At the end of every American tour I did, I would buy one of these books, go for a high tea somewhere posh, and read it. They’re so easy to find – there’s a very particular tone to the blurb, the cover design. And the thing about badly written books is that they make you feel really confident about your own writing. I read them and think, “I don’t know why I’m embarrassed all the time! Why do I feel inadequate – he PUBLISHED that!”

Denise’s latest novel 'The Second Murderer' is available now. It’s a Philip Marlowe novel (the fictional detective created by Raymond Chandler), and Denise is the first woman to take on the mantel of Chandler and recreate the character. Her five-part serial 'Three Fires', a history of the friar Girolamo Savonarola, is available on the BBC website (iPlayer).

This article was first published September 2023.

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