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The Red Road: More noir than noir itself

I don’t know exactly where to start talking about Denise Mina’s new release, The Red Road. It’s different. Mina is different, and I don’t know if this new achievement of her’s is worth the effort: It’s the most confusing book I’ve ever read.

There are more than a few narratives elbowing for attention, everyone’s name seems to be the same, there are flashbacks and forwards landing in different time zones and everybody is about to either get arrested or murdered by someone clearly identified.

The first 10 pages is a gimme in any new hardcover book, but it better play on key to go any further, even if the words don’t follow an obvious melody. I heard clear notes in The Red Road and so kept reading. At page 66, I quit, feeling stupid or suspecting obfuscation in about the same measure. After a couple of weeks and a few books later, something about how offended I was pulled me back into the mind of Mina.

And now I’ve read The Red Road twice, and the book is marked up like an eighth grader’s English essay – and this is still the most confounding book I’ve ever read.

And it’s brilliant, if you don’t expect it to follow the path you’ve rutted by reading plots spoon fed, as most are dispensed – thank god.

First of all, Mina is a Scot from Glasgow, and her writing is rough-cut Scottish with, I suspect, no American editor. That in itself is no impediment – it’s always fun to be taken into another culture – but it is the first hurdle. Next, it’s a police procedural in a time of political and economic unrest, circa 1997. Then it’s more noir than noir itself – it’s grim; everyone’s corrupt; nobody wins.

Let’s call it existential. Pop-existential, with apologies to Mr. Kierkegaard. Mina is either a poet who glisters when readers puzzle her meaning, or she writes for therapy. Notwithstanding, The Red Road is an experience. It would be a great choice for a book club that meets at midnight over martinis.

If you need plot guidance that’s burnished – like the work of James Lee Burke, P.D. James or Hakan Nesser – don’t go near Mina’s book. But if you pride yourself in reading sophisticated fiction, if you’re inclined to raise an eyebrow at any insinuation that a book may be too different for the likes of you and if you’re not afraid to wallow in Highlands misery, The Red Road will disturb emotions and elevate your self-image to indignation.

This is not a book for freshmen, so be sure you know what class you’re in.

The Red Road features 14-year-old Rose Wilson, who looks 16 and suffers the low pay Sammy the Perv negotiates from the aristocratic clubmen for the two years of mature appearance. Rose murders Sammy after a hard night in the trophy room with a dozen grandees, then kills again the same night. Then we’re transported ahead 30 years to find Rose as a nanny for her lawyer’s son’s kids, perfectly rehabilitated before she finds a photo of her naked self with the brandy and cigar boys, lawyers all.

Jeff@jeffMannix.com. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.

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