Book review: The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina

The End of the Wasp Season
by Denise Mina
Orion, 2011

The second novel in the series begun last year with Still Midnight is a more traditional affair. DS Alex Morrow of the Strathclyde police has calmed down considerably, mellowed by her pregnancy (she’s expecting twins) and resigned to the promotion of her erstwhile colleague Grant Bannerman. Bannerman is a very bad DI, rude to the DCs and taking a delight in the lack of morale of the team, while at the same time ensuring he takes all any credit and limelight for himself. The result is a miserable, resentful group of constables, a situation that is echoed in the other stations that crop up during the narrative – this author does not have much good to say about the Scottish police force! Despite the rivalry and dislike between the characters in the previous novel, here Alex is more tolerant of Bannerman than any of her colleagues. Add to this the lack of friction between Alex and her husband Brian (who barely features in this book), and the early abandonment of the theme of the “black brother, good sister”, and Alex is in danger of becoming rather bland and featureless.

She’s a good detective, however – we catch glimpses of how different the team would have been if Alex, rather than Bannerman, had won the promotion they were competing for. As the novel opens she is called to investigate the killing of Sarah Erroll, apparently a burglary gone wrong. The woman has been badly beaten, but nothing has been taken from the large house – indeed, soon the police discover extremely large sums of cash hidden in a shelf below a table in the kitchen. One of the main plots concerns Alex’s investigation into the crime, as she discovers more about Sarah’s identity but nothing about the source of her money or a motive for murder.

The other main storyline concerns Thomas Anderson, a 15-year-old schoolboy who, with his friend Squeak, is the person who has broken into Sarah’s house (this is not a spoiler as the reader is provided with this information from the start). Thomas’s life story, as well as that of his family, gradually unfolds. As it does so, the reader begins to understand the connection between Thomas and Sarah, but the author does not reveal who committed the crime or why until the end of the book.

The connection between the two plots is Kay, a single parent to four teenagers aged 13, 14, 15 and 16 (!). Kay cleans houses in the area where Sarah lived; it transpires that she was the main carer for Sarah’s mother when she was alive, and is a long-lost schoolfriend of Alex’s. There is also another connection between Kay and Alex, which Kay knows about all too well but which is completely unknown to Alex.

I enjoyed this novel, which is very slow-paced but builds up to a climax of its various themes, as Bannerman’s team runs out of patience with him; as Sarah’s life is gradually revealed; and as Thomas’s world implodes around him. The solution to the Sarah case relies only partly on detection, and is a bit contrived. Although I did not find any of the characters sympathetic, they are well-drawn, even if some of them are stereotypical. The author is keen to make several points about social attitudes and class structures, but never really follows through on the interesting situations she throws up. The End of the Wasp Season is a classic, rather than an innovative, crime novel, and is none the worse for that – though I hope that in the next book the author will push the envelope a little more in her depiction of Alex, who is strangely faded here compared with her drive and energy (not always constructive) in Still Midnight. I also hope that the author develops the character of the only female DC in the team, as from the hints provided she sounds potentially interesting.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Other reviews of this novel can be read at: Bookreporter, Reactions to Reading, Auntie M writes, and Mean Streets.

CrimeScraps reports that this novel won the 2011 svenska översatta kriminalroman [Martin Beck Award].

About the book at the author’s website, where you can read the first chapter.

My review of Still Midnight, the previous (first) novel in this series.

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