Blood, Salt, Water
Denise Mina
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Buy *Blood, Salt, Water: An Alex Morrow Novel* by Denise Minaonline

Blood, Salt, Water: An Alex Morrow Novel
Denise Mina
Little, Brown
304 pages
December 2015
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Blood, Salt, Water.

Mina's complicated mystery radiates into the lives of local criminals Tommy Farmer and Iain Fraser, who--as the novel opens--have brutally murdered a woman on the sandy shores of Loch Lomond. Iain quite suddenly sees her as a woman that he knew once or loved, but he realizes it’s just too late to go back. As the loch claws at the dockside and a handful of sand lifted by the “lamenting wind” patters the woman’s face, Iain, unable to cope with what he has done, finds that she is metaphorically trapped inside of him, writhing and angry and flailing.

There are too many constant threats coming out of Glasgow and the graceful holiday town of Helensburgh, an almost unbelievable task that is placed into the lap of DI Alex Morrow and DC Howard McGrain of Police Scotland. Morrow and McGrain have been given the daunting task of hunting down Roxanna Fuentecilla, who was reported missing by an anonymous caller who worries that she’s been “killed or something.” Her family lost contract with her after she dropped her teenage kids off at school. According to her new live-in boyfriend, Robin Walker, Roxanne was originally from a rich Madrid family who had squandered a fortune. A recent transplant to Helensburgh from London, Roxanne was supposed to be keeping a low profile, though her relationship Robin was considered to be stormy.

An eerie tension filters through Mina’s novel like an owl’s oily weatherbeaten wings as she takes us ever deeper into the criminal underworld of Hellensburg, where boutique drugs are just as much a part of the community as petty crime. From this point in the story, young café owner Boyd Fraser cringes in anticipation of his next hit and a chance meeting with mercurial Susan Grierson. Boyd’s life changes in a split second after an unexpected sexual encounter that bespeaks a chilling calculation.

Susan Grierson’s mother has just died, so she has returned to Helensburgh from the United States. Her arrival, however, harbors something far more sinister. To Boyd, who gives her a job catering a dinner dance at the Victoria Halls, that chance meeting with her disturbs him and creates in his mind an unbroken timeline “between then and now.” Here in “cozy, rosy Helensburgh,” Boyd might be a young business owner from an old family and part of the fabric of the town, yet he doesn’t like other people having a measure of him. Neither does Iain Fraser, whom Susan's craven need seduces at every turn.

With a setting on the eve of the Scottish independence referendum, Mina allows us to sink straight into her story of strange, twisted plans, of blackmail, drug-running, and money-laundering, where age-old allegiances are tested to the max. From Tommy’s mum, Elaine Farmer, who supplies Iain with all the coke he needs, to the blind smog of need and lies surrounding Roxanna, Mina’s Hellensburg is a vulgar place of ice cream parlors, amusement arcades, chips and sweets and “pocket money toys.” Morrow feels in her gut that Roxanna is probably dead, but she can’t for the life of her determine who committed the crime. When the body in the Loch is identified, yet another layer of ambiguity is exposed just beneath the surface. Morrow doesn't put too much stock in the statements from Roxanne’s children or from Robin Walker, nor from Roxanne’s shady lawyer, who heightens the atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust when he talks about Roxanne’s purchase of a local injury claims office.

Mina’s characters inhabit a realm of gritty, no-nonsense realism--most particularly Iain, whose chain-smoking and drugs are at the heart of his agenda. Instead of the people of Hellensburg learning the truth about the intruder in their midst, it is the outsider who learns about the town and its inhabitants, of a community that is constantly at odds with itself. There's a lot to diges; Hellensburg’s residents, both original and newly arrived, hoard innumerable secrets. With Roxanna still missing, as well as accusations of arson and now murder, Morrow and McGrain scramble to uncover the real killer--at first focusing on Iain, whose sad childhood only hints at the misery to come.

Mina gracefully shifts between Morrow’s perspective to that of Iain and Boyd, who seems to have a foot in both worlds but feels cheated of something vital, although he doesn’t yet know what it is. Mina’s handling of enigmatic Susan Grierson, however, really draws the reader in: this woman who arrives in this tiny west coast Scottish town, swooping in like an omniscient being and posing as a returnee with just enough information to make it all work.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2015

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