In Denise Mina's latest thriller, Dr. Margo Dunlop falls down quite the rabbit hole.

By Alamin Yohannes
August 07, 2020 at 09:30 AM EDT
The Less Dead by Denise Mina
Credit: Neil Davidson; Mulholland Books

All Margo Dunlop wanted was information about her birth family. She got so much more than she bargained for.

In The Less Dead (out Aug. 18), Dr. Margo Dunlop goes to a meeting with a member of her birth family and ends up knee-deep in a decades-old crime. The timing couldn’t be worse: she’s pregnant, grieving the death of her adoptive mother, estranged from her partner, and dealing with her best friend’s complicated life. Dr. Dunlop has a full plate.

Based on actual cases of sex workers who were killed in Glasgow in the 1980s, The Less Dead explores how some victims are taken more seriously than others. The book’s title evokes that idea, that some deaths are less than others — but author Denise Mina is clear about one thing: everyone’s death matters. “The whole book is about how we value victims and why we value some more than others,” Mina shares. “It’s important that everyone has the full protections of the law.”

Margo’s journey is one of opening her own eyes as woman of status and privilege. The crime she's confronted with remains unsolved for many reasons, including the way sex workers are dismissed by law enforcement and the public: “One of the big things that came out of the murders of sex workers over the past few years was they are not only deserving of proper investigation and protections from the police, but from the public. We have to look after each other.”

Ahead of the crime novel’s release, we spoke to Mina breaks down her latest thrilling crime tale.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you develop the character of Margo? Why do you think she works as a central character?

DENISE MINA: Some of my cousins were adopted and got to know their birth families in the past few years, and it just struck me as a really interesting question. Immediately the whole process of getting in touch with another family brought up a whole series of fascinating questions. It could be an explosive event, getting in touch with your birth family. Some of the birth families have been incorporated into our family, others haven't been. It's been really interesting, so I wanted to explore what happens to someone like Margo, who is quite sensible, and very, very cautious, is thrown into an unexpected situation, which is really a gamble. 

This isn't your first crime novel where your main character isn't a detective or part of law enforcement. What do you think putting the case in the hands of a citizen adds to a crime adventure?

I think they're much more identifiable. I have a real problem with police procedurals where they find a lot of evidence, and shoot the guy at the end. I do enjoy them, but I'm never very comfortable with those stories. We're all investigating things all the time. Is your kid glucose intolerance? Does your neighbor hate you, or have you just had lots of Botox and can't move their face? We're all investigating questions all the time. I think the main trick when you're storytelling is to get the audience to identify with one of the characters and identifying with their journey. 

Margo has several complex relationships in The Less Dead, but I want to ask about the Margo-Nikki relationship. Talk to me a bit about developing that throughout the novel.

With the idea that you would meet someone you share genes with, and you would have something in common, what I really wanted was two people who did not fit together in any way, shape, or form. How do you navigate those kinds of differences and try to understand one another? There's quite a lot of bits in the story where [Margo] was quite patronizing to Nikki or she's patronizing to Nikki's pal Lizzie. What she sees is that she's middle class, and they are working class. That lent itself to a really interesting dramatic dynamic and put the characters in opposition to one another. 

The theme of family is very present in the novel. What did you want to explore?

It's a choice. Family is a choice, and family is about who we choose to belong to rather than who you share a bloodline with. I feel that very strongly. Coming from a big family, my mom was one of fifteen, and we have maybe 80 cousins. We've all very close actually, but you choose different people to belong to at different times of your life. The main thing is that family is a choice, it is about choosing to commit yourself to people that you maybe don't have a lot in common with. My family is very religious, I am not. We make a choice about the people in your world, and I think that's something we don't really think about with family. 

The Less Dead has some dark moments, but it maintained a sense of humor. How do you balance the two so well?

Particularly when you're telling dark stories, you have to give the audience something because we're all living dark stories at the moment. I'm very aware that my books should be an escape and should be an enjoyable journey. Whenever I feel like it's getting too heavy, I always try to put in a joke there. Also, my experience with people who have lived through very dark things do have [a] great sense of humor often, and very often in the middle of darkness, there's a kind of gallows' humor. The same joke at a funeral is funnier than a joke in a comedy club because you need that really, it's a bonding thing. 

So I'll go back and realize something's a bit grim, and I'm reluctant to it myself. So, for the audience, I put something funny in there or something tender in there. Originally Nikki was not very beautiful, then I realized it changed it fundamentally if she was beautiful and if she was graceful. It fundamentally changed the dynamic. So you go in and tweak things when you realize it's too dark or if the change can make the story better. 

You have written several crime novels. What keeps you in it, and what are you excited about the current state of the genre?

When I started about 20 years ago, nobody was that interested in crime fiction. The idea of writing a book like this was really unthinkable. That you would have an ex-sex worker as a central figure and the sympathetic character. Now there are so many more stories. It's just saturated. It's all very different now. 

You are one of the great writers bringing Tartan Noir to readers. What does it mean to you to bring some of Glasgow to people with your work?

One thing that I think about detective fiction – well, all crime fiction really – is that it moves up and down to different social strata, so you can have a citywide look at the way a culture works. Ian Rankin says if you want to find out about a place and what's happening in it, read crime fiction. I think that's really true and because we were taken all that seriously, you could pretty much do anything. You could take readers anywhere. 

Tartan Noir is such a broad group of people, and it's pretty representative of the culture – the only thing is that it's very white. I think all crime fiction is very white, and we really need to challenge that and change that. We really need to push for change because we're not representing people of color in the genre, I feel, at all. 

What do you think makes a great mystery or crime novel?

I always mind something Graham Greene said about thinking about the question in a reader's mind when writing a crime novel. Not what you told your editor you were gonna write, not what did you do last time, not what is going to sell as a movie. What is the reader wondering about and interested in? That is what really hooks me into a crime fiction novel. I don't really care if the people are good, I don't want the good guys to always win. It's about the pending question, and, for me, the narrative drive of crime fiction is what makes it pop.

I just really want a narrative that sucks you in, a really compelling and bold story. 

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