A true crime podcast leads a woman on a dangerous adventure across Europe in Denise Mina’s crackling new novel, Conviction.
In this fresh thriller, excerpts from a podcast weave throughout Anna McLean’s travels, during which she comes face-to-face with the woman who once almost killed her, the full details of which are (of course) not immediately revealed. It’s a deliciously clever premise that fully delivers.
The idea came to Mina—bestselling author of 13 novels including the Alex Morrow and Garnethill series, as well as plays, short stories and even graphic novels—after she found herself hooked on podcasts. “They’re so intimate, and you feel like you get to know the podcaster so well,” Mina says in a phone call to her home in Glasgow. “It’s not formal, and every episode is a little story in itself. I’ve listened to literally thousands of them. I’ve stopped listening to music.”
Mina found that true crime lends itself particularly well to podcasts. “The story form is already set in true crime,” she explains. “The narrative arc is already set out for them. . . . Podcasts can focus on characters in a very strange way. They can suddenly start talking about a different character. I find them delightful to write because they’re little short stories about backstory or character.”
The day Anna starts listening to the podcast called “Death and the Dana,” her husband declares that he’s leaving her for her best friend, Estelle, and the two of them are taking Anna’s daughters on a vacation. In shock, Anna curls up in her marble hallway and hits play on “Death and the Dana.” It tells the story of a father and his two kids who were killed when their yacht exploded off the shores of a swanky French island.
When a familiar name is mentioned in the podcast, Anna is jolted from her misery. The dead man was a friendly guest at a hotel where Anna used to work. And the wife left behind is the woman who once almost killed Anna.
Nearly at that very moment, Estelle’s husband, a depressed former rock star named Fin, turns up on Anna’s doorstep. Heartbroken and reeling, Anna and Fin set out to solve the mysteries of the Dana explosion—and maybe save Anna’s life. To find answers, Anna and Fin go from Edinburgh to London to Venice to Paris.
“I really loved writing a book set in so many places,” Mina says. “I wanted to write a story that was one of those old–fashioned stories that spans continents. These people are not spending time filling out visas. They’re having rip-roaring adventures. I love closed environment crime stories, but I wanted to do something expansive in this one.”
At the center of it all is Anna, a woman with a tough past who says what she’s thinking and shares her opinion, solicited or not. “She was glorious to write,” says Mina. “She’s so disinhibited. She says the things you think and then feel guilty for thinking. Just generally there’s a lot of social performance in the world, and Anna’s in such an emotional state, she just can’t do it.”
Hearing Mina enthuse about her latest book, it’s clear she still delights in creating new stories, and Conviction falls somewhere between old tales and new. She purposely included many old–fashioned narrative tropes in Conviction. “There’s the European jaunt, the combination of characters in the drawing room, the ill-matched double act.” But a recent piece in The Guardian casts Conviction as particularly of-the-moment, as part of a fresh crop of books that are inspired by the #metoo movement.
Mina doesn’t necessarily view her book as a product of #metoo (“I’ve been writing about the themes of sexual assault and violence for 20 years, but if it makes it palatable and comprehensible, that’s fine”), but she does proudly accept the label of feminist writer. “I totally embrace it,” she says without hesitation. “You know the feminists you don’t like, the really shouty, angry ones? That is the one I am.” She laughs before taking on a more serious tone.
“It used to be much less popular to be a feminist; there was so much prejudice against the feminist movement in the ’80s and ’90s,” she says. “It’s really about equal money for equal work, and equal protection under the law. Gender and race is all about money. No one wants to pay us the money we’re entitled to. Take the emotion out of it—which I don’t have time for—just pay us what were entitled to, and leave it. I’m not going to pretend that’s some mad crazy leftist nonsense.”
Like most working moms, Mina has had to make many decisions about prioritizing her time and her energy, a practice she calls “shaving off the flummery.”
“Personally I gave up dieting and all the stuff you hate,” she says. “Being bitchy about people. Worrying about what people think of you. Just go about your business and never mind.”
One thing Mina won’t change? Her love of Scotland, and particularly of Glasgow.
“It’s a brilliant city for a writer. People tell you stories all the time. It’s very much a storytelling culture. People are interested in each other. It’s rare.”
Photo credit: Neil Davidson