Wednesday, April 4, 2018


SANCTUM by Denise Mina (Bantam, 2002)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Lachlan Harriot is in a state of shock. His wife Susie has been convicted of the murder of serial killer Andrew Gow, a prisoner in her care. Unless Harriot can come up with grounds for an appeal, Susie will be given a life sentence, depriving her of her home, her family and her two-year-old daughter.

Twenty years ago, a young Scottish author burst onto the crime writing scene with GARNETHILL, a tale where incest survivor and former psychiatric patient Maureen O'Donnell finds herself the prime suspect for the murder of her boyfriend, a therapist. From those earliest authorial days - award-winning ones at that - Mina developed a reputation for insightfully blending the psychological and sociological into character-centric crime tales.

GARNETHILL grew into a trilogy starring O'Donnell, and Mina went on to write two further highly acclaimed and award-bedecked crime series; one starring 1980s Glaswegian reporter Paddy Meehan and another focused on Glasgow detective Alex Morrow. Along with graphic novels, stage plays, and television, Mina also recently wrote the true crime-inspired novel THE LONG DROP, which won last year's McIlvanney Prize. So it's been two decades of insanely high quality storytelling from Mina, on multiple fronts not just a singular detective.

But often overlooked among Mina's oeuvre is one of her earlier books, SANCTUM (sold as DECEPTION in the United States), a brilliant standalone that fell between the Garnethill and Paddy Meehan trilogies. I discovered it while travelling in North America, reading it while based in rural Canada, and was blown away. It's a hidden gem among Mina's dragon's hoard of storytelling gems.

Like many Mina protagonists, Lachlan Harriot is complicated, and not always likable. His wife Susie is a forensic psychiatrist who has been found guilty of murdering one of her patients, notorious serial killer Andrew Gow. Not because he was an evil man that she felt the world needed to be rid of, but because she was obsessed. She stole his prison files, was in love with him, and became fatally jealous when he married someone else. Lachlan just doesn't believe it. Each night he climbs the stairs of their house to Susie's study, working his way through her papers, transcribing and transferring case notes, interviews, and trial press clippings onto his own computer. He's looking for answers, hoping to find something the investigators and attorneys missed.

He's a man obsessed, and teetering on the edge.

Mina tells the story as if it's a true crime one, based on 'found documents' of Lachlan's diaries of his efforts, interspersed with excerpts of what he found in case notes and trial clippings etc. SANCTUM is exceptionally clever, a real delight for the mind, while also being full of emotion too. I was quickly drawn in, and found it a real stay-up-all-night page-turner. Mina's prose shines, and her characterisation is insightful and incisive. Lachlan is peculiar, but understandably so. At times you want to grab him by the collar and slap him silly, while still being able to get why he's thinking what he's thinking or doing what he's doing. Similarly Susie is a multi-faceted character that elicits strong, conflicting emotions. Mina does a superb job making us care and connect with characters that aren't necessarily that likable.

SANCTUM delves into some dark areas - longtime Mina favourites like family dysfunction and the overlaps between sex and violence, along with related issues surrounding the appeal some nasty male killers have with some women, the way relatives and others may seek to profit off notoriety, and the celebrity status 'enjoyed' by some of the world's worst examples of humanity.

There's a sordidness to much of what happens in SANCTUM; it's not always a comfortable read, but it is a brilliant one.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for newspapers and magazines in several countries. In recent years he has interviewed 200 crime writers, discussed the genre onstage at books festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, and has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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