The Less Dead by Denise Mina opens with a personal crisis that explodes into a compelling thriller. Glasgow-based physician Margot Dunlop is facing down the chaos in her life: her adopted mother has recently passed, she’s broken up with her boyfriend, her best friend is being stalked and she has just found out she’s pregnant. Trying to make sense of her world, Margot reaches out to the agency that facilitated her adoption to get in touch with her birth mother, only to learn that she was murdered shortly after Margot’s birth.
From here we descend into the dark underbelly of Glasgow. Margot’s mother was a sex worker and heroin addict, her murder left unsolved by a police force that considered her subhuman. Margot meets her aunt Nikki, also a former sex worker and addict, and learns that her mother’s case was far more complex than a trick gone wrong. Nikki believes that her sister was killed by a corrupt cop, and has received threatening letters that provide details only the killer could know. Margot isn’t sure she wants to be involved in the case, but she isn’t given a choice when the killer begins stalking and harassing her as well.
Mina’s novel stands out in a genre that commodifies the dead bodies of women. Her characters are nuanced, complicated and never stereotypes, and her portrayal of the world of sex work isn’t lurid or voyeuristic. Furthermore, Margot is not the middle-class savior some would mistakenly believe that these women need. And although Margot’s mother was a victim of a violent crime, Mina juxtaposes her murder with the stalking of Margot’s best friend, Lilah, showing that women are the subjected to violence by the men in their life at every socioeconomic level.
As Margot seeks justice for her late mother, she’s introduced to a community of women, some still addicts, some still sex workers, who protect and care for one another, even as they are shamed and shunned by society at large. The Less Dead is at once a gripping thriller and an examination, and vindication, of a group of women who are often faceless, unsympathetic victims.