TARTAN NOIR

Patricia “Paddy” Meehan is likely to go unnoticed within most groups. If she does stand out to an observer, the culprit is either her clothing, which is chosen for its low-end price tag, or the degree to which it helps draw attention away from Paddy’s, well, her bulk.

True enough, her boyfriend, Sean, tells her she is attractive (he means it), but a number of the reporters on the Scottish Times refer to her as a wee cow. Paddy has a sharp tongue; she can and does give the reporters and editors as good as she gets. She also carries around in her purse a clutch of hard-cooked eggs and a portion of grapefruit, the two principal ingredients of the Mayo Clinic Diet, reputed to burn off unwanted body fat.

Below Paddy’s surface is another matter, a salient matter, in fact. Who Paddy is, what she wants, and how she pursues her goals are sufficient qualities to allow her creator, Denise Mina, the enthusiasm and latitude to project a five-book series of darkly-but-hauntingly reflective novels in which Paddy investigates worlds of violence, social behavior, and moral justice.

In real life, there was a man named Paddy Meehan, falsely imprisoned for a murder he did not commit, convicted because of doctored evidence and false testimony. Patricia, our Paddy, is aware of the man and his story, the coincidence of their names one added plank in the edifice of her desire to get at the “real” stories she sees about her.

The series begins with “Field of Blood,” which is available in paperback from Little Brown. In it, Paddy, just 18 in the 1980s, is a copygirl for The Scottish News, a large daily in Glasgow, where the economy is staggering from the effects of Mrs. Thatcher’s stewardship.

Paddy’s goal is to work her way up the chain of command, ardently hopeful of making a place for herself as a reporter, a tough enough goal in a male-dominated profession without the ever-present reminder that a woman in any job means one less position available for a man.

Paddy Meehan is not only on the rat-tail of the financial curve, she is from a close-knit, culture-bound Irish family, which is to say her people are Catholic, engulfed by the entrenched Protestant majority of Scotland. The mere fact of Paddy wanting to work at all rather than marry and begin producing a family marginalizes her even further. Before the narrative begins, Paddy has already been navigating the perilous equivalent of a minefield, wearing snowshoes.

“Field of Blood” opens with a murder, brutal, apparently senseless, horrific in its implications. One of its alleged perpetrators is a young cousin of Paddy’s boyfriend, giving her a potential entry to a story along with a moral conflict of an even greater edge. Read this engrossing novel first before moving on to the newly published “The Dead Hour.” Doing so will have you firmly set in the oppressive-but-fascinating grip of Glasgow as well as Paddy’s remarkable attempts to forge a life for herself that extends beyond the margins.

If “Field of Blood” is remarkable – it is – and Denise Mina has produced a resonant character whose life force is compelling, “The Dead Hour” extends the arc to the point where it is heartbreakingly acute.

The timeframe is moved forward; Paddy has indeed risen one step in her career path, now driving about with another reporter in the “calls car,” a vehicle equipped with a police radio, checking out the inexorable life force of a city with a numbing rate of unemployment, shuttered factories, life in the welfare state. Add significant doses of bone-chilling cold, and pandemic domestic violence. Her father’s job has gone the way of so many other Glaswegian workers, leaving Paddy as the sole support of her entire family.

As “The Dead Hour” begins, Paddy witnesses an apparent act of domestic violence. In the haste of a police response and possible embarrassment to the parties involved, a 50-pound bank note is pressed into Paddy’s hand as a bribe not to write about what she has seen. This is done quickly, before she can protest or return the money. Paddy thinks long and hard about what the 50-pound note would mean to her mother in terms of rent and groceries. Then she discovers that the two policemen who attended the violence had also been offered money, which they accepted.

What appeared to be domestic violence has evolved into a brutal murder, followed by a suicide, which becomes a convenient scapegoat for the two policemen who accepted a bribe. The suicide is a ready fit for the murder. Case closed. Except for Paddy and her conscience.

Most crime novels are artfully presented interviews and narrative point-of-view manipulations in which the good guys try to get meaningful information from witnesses and potential suspects. These interviews are interspersed with physical action, some of it menacing, if not violent. Often, as in “Field of Blood” and “The Dead Hour,” there are also theme-related observations and reflections about the human condition.

The truth – even the Platonic Truth – in crime fiction is frequently obscured by denial, self-interest, and just plain wrong-headedness. The answers – solutions – when they come, are never complete enough by themselves to scratch all the itches provided by the openings, the presentations of the puzzle. Almost by definition, the beginning chapters of suspense fiction are more challenging and engaging than the conclusions. Readers of crime fiction and fact are caught in the ongoing-but-unsettling calculus in which endings – solutions – are at best negotiated settlements with reality.

Although Patricia “Paddy” Meehan is a fictional character, Denise Mina has expertly set her in motion among enough factual events that her presence on the page seems as much like a memoir as a fiction. The endings of Paddy’s first two recorded ventures are more satisfying than mere identification of whodunit or even why? In both cases, the ending is informed by the kind of discovery most admirable humans recognize as being plausible. In this sense, the payoff of “The Dead Hour” trumps the discovery of “Field of Blood.” This is not to in any way denigrate “Field of Blood,” but rather to acknowledge that writers would kill to find a character as vibrant and admirable as Paddy Meehan.