I can resist single-malt scotch and sometimes even shortbread. But I am helplessly devoted to Scotland’s most recent contribution to world civilization: cinder-hearted, character-driven crime fiction. In the novels of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, and Denise Mina, the weather is as foul as the language, the alcohol consumption deadlier than the psychopaths, and the sleuths every bit as complicated as the nutters they hunt down.

Consider Glaswegian journalist Paddy Meehan, the pugnacious heroine of Mina’s new novel, Slip of the Knife. Introduced in 2005’s Field of Blood, Paddy believes that ”most states of emotional turmoil could be covered with a growl.” In her popular newspaper column, Paddy rants about whatever annoys her that day, from the political convictions of fatuous actors to the fashion sense of soccer stars. And while she is sometimes ashamed of her splenetic outbursts, this cockeyed irritability may be her greatest gift, without which she’d be just another chubby hack and self-pitying, working-class single parent. ”You’re fat and everyone hates you,” Paddy’s editor tells her. He means to be encouraging, and that’s exactly how Paddy takes it: confirmation that she’s a badass.

Of course, Paddy would prefer to be lovely, beloved, and slender, and her wistful longing makes her an appealing figure, even when she’s throwing a tantrum or casually hurting someone’s feelings. Paddy doesn’t really like who she is, but unlike so many sad, inward-looking fictional ladies, she converts that dissatisfaction into fierce, outward-bound energy.

As usual, Paddy needs every ounce of that energy to survive her latest adventures. For starters, Callum Ogilvy, the 10-year-old child-killer she tangled with in Field of Blood, has just been released from prison, only now he is a very large, very unhappy man. And in an unrelated story line, one of Paddy’s long-ago ex-boyfriends, washed-up reporter Terry Hewitt, has been found stripped, shot in the head, and dumped in a watery ditch, possibly by agents of the IRA.

Yes, sigh, the IRA. Slip of the Knife takes place in the early 1990s, and calling up some doughty Irish terrorists is a perfectly era-appropriate twist. But even Mina can’t work up much gusto for these antiquated players on the thriller scene. The novel’s plot is a bit raggedy, lacking the snap and tension of some of Mina’s previous works. Then again, watching Paddy careen around Glasgow in too-tight skirts, dress down sinister thugs in pubs (”She’d yet to meet a man who was immune to her angry-mum voice”), and enjoy a more robust love life than tubby women in literature are usually permitted is entertainment enough. B+

Slip of the Knife
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