Denise Mina is always willing to grapple with the darkest issues, and the people society overlooks. The Less Dead has an additional resonance after the recent death of Peter Sutcliffe reminded us of how the police disparaged the sex workers who he killed, contrasting them to his “innocent” victims.
Margo Dunlop is a Glasgow GP. She is pregnant. Her adoptive mother has recently died and she is struggling to clear out her house and sell it. She is also estranged from her partner. With these major life events coming at once, it is understandable that Margo decides to search out her birth mother.
The Less Dead begins with her waiting in a counselling centre for the arrival of her birth mother’s sister, Nikki. Nikki is late but when she finally arrives, she tells her that her birth mother, Susan, was a sex worker and was murdered soon after she gave up Margo. The killer was never found.
Nikki wants Margo’s help to bring the killer to justice. She believes that Margo, as a professional, will be able to get answers that she is unable to get herself.
Margo is unsure that she wants to become involved in Nikki’s life. Nikki and her close friend are, like Susan, former sex workers. As she learns more about Nikki, she finds other reasons to be suspicious of her. Margo is also dealing with her relationship issues, a friend in crisis, her adoptive family’s dramas, and other plot developments which I won’t spoil.
The Less Dead as a whole feels like an early draft, in need of shaping and polishing. Nikki articulates (twice!) her hurt about the way sex workers are considered to be worth less than other women. Margo’s complicated feelings around her birth and adoptive mothers are nicely handled but, as a GP, she seems surprisingly squeamish and naïve about the lives Susan and Nikki led.
The many promising issues that are set up are not fully developed. Then at the end suddenly there is a rush of events but no real resolution. I’m a bit surprised it’s been nominated for the Costa Novel award (maybe the proverbial right author, wrong book).
I’ve enjoyed several Denise Mina novels and normally can overlook plot problems because of their strong characterisation, sense of place and dark humour. This one, though, feels disappointing after the Conviction set expectations so high. If you haven’t read her work before, maybe start there.
I received a copy of The Less Dead from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Less Dead on Goodreads