Blood, Salt, Water is the fifth installment in Denise Mina’s series featuring Glasgow police detective Alex Morrow. Normally, by the fourth or fifth in a mystery series, the work begins to fray around the edges. Certain habits develop and repeat, the featured detective cuts her hair with a nail scissors for the umpteenth time and you know a great character has been drained of life. That is not so with Denise Mina and her Alex Morrow series. In fact, each installment takes her farther and farther from the stale tropes of genre fiction into a new kind of mystery series that defies conventions.
I think Mina is aware of the tendency multi-book series have to become stale. After all, Alex Morrow is her third series and she cut limited her first two (Garnethill and Paddy Meeham) to three books. With Alex Morrow, she addresses this by adding new characters and losing some important ones and by changing venue. In Blood, Salt, Water she takes us out of Glasgow to Helensburgh, a relatively prosperous and very picturesque town on Loch Lomond. It is one of those towns where everybody may not know everyone else, but they certainly know of them.
The story begins with the murder of a woman just outside Helensburgh. There’s no mystery though, we are present in Iain Fraser’s mind as he bludgeons her to death. We pretty much know who, how and why from the outset, but this is no simple procedural focusing on the police efforts to catch this criminal anything-but-mastermind. The police and in particular, Alex Morrow, are more interested in tracking a missing person, Roxana Fuentecilla, a woman whom they have been surveilling, a woman Morrow finds herself liking despite the assumption she is part of a criminal enterprise. A third person, Boyd Fraser, local Helensburgh restauranteur and evangelist of farm-to-table cuisine, is another person we follow in her pursuit of a bit of a coke and a bit of a debauch. As the narrative jumps from one to the other, we discover how small the town is, how people are connected and h0w they are divided. Boyd is one of the Lawnmore Frasers while Iain is one of the Colquin Frasers and that makes quite a difference.
The murdered woman is found and she is not the missing woman, but Morrow is certain the cases are connected. She begins to catch hints of a larger conspiracy – one that involves finance and legal fine print. Somehow these moving parts, the two Frasers from different sides of Helensburgh, a returnee from America, home perhaps for the referendum; a lawyer who is smarmy as hell, some local gang heavies. Some of these people are clearly working at the behest of higher ups who are inconveniently far away. As a backdrop to all this, tensions are high as the referendum on Scottish independence is near.
If you are a Mina fan, you know that Morrow has to take satisfaction from her loving husband and her two children, because justice if fickle and flawed and seldom found in Glasgow. This story is no different, though the person she finally identifies at heart of her mystery is quite possibly the most clever and diabolical of her series.
I recommend Mina fans rush to read this most recent. If you have not read Denise Mina, you should. Her stories are grim and sometimes they will break your heart, but then in real life, people can be cruel and sometimes justice is nowhere to be found. Sometimes her stories are disturbing. Certainly, reading Blood, Salt, Water, I found myself feeling sympathy for Iain Fraser, the murderer we were introduced to at the beginning. That can be disturbing, understanding the motives of a murderer to the point that he seems a good man. But that is why Denise Mina’s books are always fresh. She does not wrap things up neatly in a bow, she draws us to where we are emotionally complicit. I cannot wait for her next book.