In Denise Mina’s gritty crime novel, The Less Dead, single Glaswegian doctor Margo, following the death of her adoptive mother, seeks out her birth family, only to collide into a dark world of murder. Margo discovers a cache of letters from her birth mother’s sister but kept from her by her adoptive mother. Margo arranges a meeting with her long-lost relative, and after a few minutes spent in the company of her Aunt Nikki, it would seem that Margo was extremely lucky to have been adopted–even if that situation wasn’t perfect.
When people decide to go hunting for lost friends or relatives, there’s usually some impetus at work, and that is true in both Margo and Nikki’s case. Margo, who has just split for her long-term boyfriend (well, sort of) is pregnant, and with her personal life stagnating, she becomes curious about her past. In Nikki’s case, she wants to enlist Margo’s help in catching the man who murdered Margo’s mother decades earlier, a 19 -year-old sex worker named Susan.
While Margo wants to take the whole reunion thing slowly, and is interested in finding out about her birth mother, she is ill prepared to learn the ugly truth. It’s earth shattering to discover that she was the child of a heroin addict, and that her Aunt Nikki, who seems somewhat unbalanced, was also a heroin user.
Given the class divide, the meeting between Margo and Nikki does not go well. Nikki isn’t really interested in Margo as a person, she only wants to enlist her help in the hunt for Susan’s killer. Nikki insists that the murderer is a dirty cop. It’s just all too much for Margo, and she walks away. Naturally over the years, she’d imagined her birth family, but nothing she imagined prepared her for the truth.
Splintered. She imagined all of these alternative selves existed in parade worlds and these other lives have meant so much to her. They fostered possibilities and comforted her when things were miserable at home.
But once Margo is aware of her past, she can’t undo the knowledge, so it’s down the rabbit hole: soon she’s looking at news reports and even graphic crime scene photos. Margo’s interest in the case and her contact with Nikki stirs the slumbering past. Margo was unknowingly protected by class, education and in essence a new identity. All of those protections disappear once she steps into the nightmare of her mother’s murder.
The class divide between Margo and Nikki is well created, and since Margo is the spitting image of her mother, there’s a weird time warp effect as Nikki explains Glasgow’s terrible history of heroin use, and the murders of sex workers who were seen as easy targets by predators. There are parallel realities here: Nikki’s world in which women are slaughtered and no one cares, and Margo’s world where sex workers are far off in the hidden corners of society. There’s some great secondary characters here including author Jack Robertson, whose self-published book. Terror on the Streets argues that the murdered sex workers were victims of a serial killer which is contrary to the police claims. For crime fans, this is an entertaining read. Not gory, and the premise is off the beaten track.