The Less Dead

By Denise Mina

Publisher/Year: Penguin Random House/2021

Publisher description

When Margo goes in search of her birth mother for the first time, she meets her aunt, Nikki, instead. Margo learns that her mother, Susan, was a sex worker murdered soon after Margo’s adoption. To this day, Susan’s killer has never been found.

Nikki asks Margo for help. She has received threatening and haunting letters from the murderer, for decades. She is determined to find him, but she can’t do it alone…

Reviewer: Jacqui Horwood

Denise Mina is one of the UK’s foremost Tartan Noir crime writers. Her work includes the Garnethill series with Maureen O’Donnell, the Paddy Meehan series, the Alex Morrow series and an array of standalone books, including Conviction and The Long Drop.

Mina writes about Scotland, particularly the gritty streets and characters of Glasgow, and she doesn’t shy away from the social issues that beset the city.

The Less Dead opens with Margo, a respectable doctor whose adoptive mother has died waiting in an adoption agency. Margo is pregnant but has split up with her partner. She is looking for family and connection. Margo has discovered her birth mother is dead but is waiting for her mother’s sister, Nikki. When Nikki finally arrives, Margo’s world is turned upside down.

Margo’s mother Susan had been a drug-using sex worker who was murdered at the age of nineteen not long after giving up Margo. Nikki insists Susan was a victim of a serial killer and that she knows who that person was. She also insists that the killer has been sending her abusive letters about the murder since it happened in the 1990s. Nikki wants Margo’s help to catch the killer.

Determined not to see Nikki again, Margo soon finds that she is also receiving abusive letters and an unknown person is breaking into her house.

The Less Dead is an absorbing read and takes us into the lives of the sex workers and meditates via several conversations between characters about what brings women to consider sex work as an option. This meditation is a more nuanced contemplation on poverty, violence and choice. As one woman says, ‘Fifteen years of our lives, important years but people just want the sad bits or the dirty bits or the Christ-saved-me bits but not the whole of it, the whole messy truth of it. Just the bits that fit their agenda’.

The search for her mother, who she was and who murdered her takes Margo into parts of people’s lives she’d rather not know about but nonetheless needs to face to better understand Susan.

The Less Dead sucks you in from the first page as it hurtles towards a startling ending. Along the way, it gives you much to think about long after you’ve finished reading.