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Face to Face: Denise Mina

Denise Mina smiles a contented grin on thinking about the best advice she’s ever received.

The sage words came from George Pelecanos, criminal fiction mastermind and screenwriter of HBO’s seminal Baltimore-set drugs series The Wire: “It’s all about the house.” Says Mina: “That was great advice.

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It’s easy when you have a bit of success to get caught up in it. Really, it’s all about your family.”

The domestic core that lies at the heart of much of the crime novelist’s work is about to make the transfer to screen for the first time in early 2011 when the BBC’s adaptation of The Field Of Blood starring Peter Capaldi and David Morrissey is broadcast.

Not that there hadn’t previously been plenty of film and small-screen interest. The rights to her celebrated Garnethill trilogy were sold four times, while Plan B, the production company founded by then husband-and-wife Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, were among dozens of companies to make inquiries about her fourth page-turner Sanctum, entitled Deception in the United States.

Denise completed The Field Of Blood the day before she gave birth to her first child. “That’s self-employment,” she joked. She could feel her unborn son punching and kicking as she finalised its brutal plot. Seven years on, the book’s central storyline of a trainee journalist, Paddy Meehan, investigating the murder of a three-year-old by two young boys is liable to prod a hornet’s nest of controversy that continues to surround the murder of Liverpool toddler James Bulger and the perpetrators of that crime.

Ask Denise Mina about any possible furore over child killers when The Field Of Blood airs and her easy smile quickly dissipates. “It’s a bit of a non-issue, actually. I think we need to talk about that case. What happened to those children was an obscenity. When the book came out in Scandinavia, the controversy there was this could never happen. It’s unrealistic. You could not try children of 10 as adults. And you couldn’t send them to prison for that long -- it’s inhumane. Surely that’s against European law. Over here the controversy was: ‘Why are you speaking about this?’”

There are deliberate echoes of the Bulger crime in The Field Of Blood: the toddler is tortured and mutilated; the van carrying the youths charged with the crime is attacked by a mob of angry, adult protestors. The latter was a reaction the author found herself trying to explain to publishers and readers outwith the British Isles. “There was a case that happened at exactly the same time under pretty much the same circumstances in Norway,” she said, “and the child was sent away for six months and returned to the same village where the incident occurred and they were looked after by the community and they never re-offended. We really need to look at the way we deal with child offenders here.”

The care and treatment of female offenders with mental issues was focus of the PhD thesis of the former Strathclyde University lecturer in criminology and criminal laws. “We don’t talk about children growing up in families with addictions,” she said. “We don’t talk about children growing up in alcoholic households. It’s the biggest thing that affects children in Scotland. We need to look at what is available to children in those situations.”

The novelist made two visits to the set of the two-part dramatisation. The first occasion was to see how the smoke-filled, kipper-tied newspaper office of 1982 was rendered by Slate North films. Nye Bevan House, the municipal office block at Charing Cross was used for the newsroom, in which we meet Peter Capaldi as the whisky-soaked seasoned hack, Dr Peter, and David Morrissey as editor Murray Devlin.

“It really was like walking into the inside of your head,” said Denise. “David Kane [the writer and director] made choices that I wouldn’t have had the guts to make, like Peter Capaldi for Dr Peter. I would never have been that ambitious.”

The second visit was to cast her eye over the family home of Paddy Meehan (played by former River City actress Jayd Johnson), a working-class terrace built inside a grand Victorian residence in Quarrier’s Village, near Kilmacolm. Today, she is nursing a tea in a Kelvinbridge coffee shop. Just a few streets away on Oakfield Avenue is an Alexander “Greek” Thomson townhouse dating from 1865. Its blackened exterior is now the setting for her first graphic novel, A Sickness In The Family, in which the anti-hero of Vertigo’s cult comic Hellblazer, John Constantine, is transported to Glasgow’s Park Circus.

She wrote A Sickness In The Family four years ago, prompted by the public’s avaricious desire for bigger, better, more improved properties at the height of the housing boom. The time lag in its publication was partly down to the time taken the Italian artist Antonio Fuso to complete his gothic monochrome illustrations.

The tale of family resentment and greed is based on the dysfunctional Usher family, a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Fall Of The House Of Usher. Family members start dying one by one during renovations to add a staircase to the family home.

“It was really based on King Lear,” said Mina, whose book was launched at a party in Plan B Books on Osborne Street last weekend. “I knew really nice families who were slightly ripped apart by who was going to get what when someone dies. I just think that’s really interesting, having stuff to leave. No one in my family ever had stuff to leave. If they didn’t leave debts, that was great. The whole story is really about that grasping 1980s individualism - what can I get, versus communitarianism.”

The idea of her own legacy persuaded her to finally tie the marry her partner, Steve, a forensic psychologist. The couple, whose sons are aged seven and five, tied the knot in a marriage without ceremony. “It wasn’t a big romantic thing,” she says. “We got married because of inheritance tax laws, so we wouldn’t have to sell the house if one of us dies.”

It’s Denise who is responsible for the bulk of childcare out of school hours -- “six hours where you have nothing to feel guilty about” -- which allows for less guilt during her international book promoting, which last year included a festival of Scottish writing in Toronto and a British Council comics and crime tour of India.

Her luggage was lost on the first day of the Indian tour. “I didn’t even have a mascara,” she said. “I washed my dress and my pants every night because it was roasting. And because I was in an air-conditioned hotel room it didn’t dry. Every morning I would appear in the lobby wearing a wet dress and a wet pair of pants.”

She wrote A Drunk Woman Looks At The Thistle, her 2008 re-imagining of Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1926 poem and her second play for lunchtime theatre series A Play A Pie And A Pint, on flights to book promotion tours of the States and Australia.

While the majority of fans she encounters are happy with a signature and a quick chat, there’s a few who have become cause for concern. One American fan, from Nashville, who had pestered her with increasingly ardent letters asking for a meeting, confessed to crossing the Tennessee state boundary to murder a man. “I mean, really alarming stuff. Not ‘I’m a nutter’, but really ‘I’ve thought this out and this is what I did’. I phoned the Nashville police and I sent them all the documentary evidence. They didn’t phone me up and say that was rubbish, so I don’t know if it actually happened.”

The smiling portrait of her on her books -- which no doubt contributed to such infatuations -- should look quite different on her next novel, The End Of The Wasp Season, due to be published early next year and the latest in the detective Alex Morrow series.

Her cat-like green eyes are now framed by a silvery crop rather than the black elfin bob of old. She had hoped to revert to her natural grey hair colour while filming Edgar Allan Poe: Love, Death and Women, a BBC4 documentary on the females in the life of the American horror legend, but was advised against it.

“Afterwards they said: ‘We were pleased with the way everything’s gone, but the one mistake we made was we should have let you go grey,’” she said. “I looked at pictures of myself and I look like I’m wearing a hat. It just looks much better. It’s much more softening. You get to a certain age and your skin changes colour and black hair doesn’t suit you.”

She’s fitting no more “jollies”, like TV presenting or playwrighting, into her schedule until her next two thrillers are completed. There’s only so much one woman can fit into the basket of her Pashley bicycle.

“I gave up loads of things,” she says, adding another wry grin. “I don’t really exercise. I don’t wash as often as I should. My house is a mess. I don’t socialise, I really don’t. It is a struggle, but it’s a lovely struggle. It is like drinking pure Kia-Ora -- you just cut out all the bulls**t.”

 

Career high: Being in San Francisco at the Bouchercon crime writers’ convention. And also walking into John Smith’s bookshop in Glasgow and seeing my book Garnethill, and my mum taking a photo of me.

Career low: In every book, about two-thirds through, when you think: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’

Holiday location: Scotland. I’m renting Calgary Castle on Mull with pals who used to share bedsits when we were students.

Favourite meal: A pint of Tetley tea and toast, brown Sainsbury’s bread, President butter and lime marmalade.

Favourite film: Army Of Shadows, a Jean-Pierre Melville film about the French Resistence.

Favourite music: Today it’s The Pixies.

Last book read: A biography of Fanny Burney, the 18th- and 19th-century novelist.

Best personality trait: Not taking myself too seriously.

Worst personality trait: Being unable to sit down. I can’t relax. It must be really tiresome.

Best advice received: George Pelecanos, left, told me don’t take a job that takes you away from your family because you’ll regret it.

Perfect dinner guests: One to cook, one to clean up, one to wipe my mouth, and one person to operate the DVD player.

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