I was pleased to learn that the title of Denise Mina’s book comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle: ‘He who is unable to live in society… must be either a Beast or a God.‘ This spoke to the Classicist in me, and took me right back to my final year ‘Religion in the Ancient World’ lectures at university. The Greeks had a very interesting view of their Gods – in contrast to the Christian view of one who is all-loving and forgiving, the Greeks embued their deities with much more human traits. This means that they behave in some unspeakable ways, with kidnapping, murder, rape and cannibalism amongst their crimes. For Mount Olympus, Lord Acton’s dictum that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely‘ could be taken as some kind of perverse mission statement.
And so it is with Mina’s book, which features a range of different people (I shrink from calling them characters; one of the most powerful aspects of the book is the feeling that it contains real individuals, whose lives extend backwards and forwards beyond the confines of the novel itself) who are tested, and in some cases corrupted, by their circumstances and surroundings. With great skill, Mina juggles three distinct (but related) storylines: the police investigation into a post office robbery, during which an elderly man inexplicably helps the perpetrator and pays with this life; the attempted bribery and corruption of two police-officers; and an unfaithful MP who sues the press for libel, in an attempt to stop his wife from leaving him.
I struggled initially with the book, and in keeping up with these different threads. Mina’s writing is not showy, and works through a steady process of building detail upon detail. It is also not explicit; Mina’s protagonists are more enigmatic, and the reader is left wondering about their true motives. But whilst Mina’s style is quiet, it is not fussy; whilst she ties up the main plot points, what is also clear is that the full consequences of these strands have yet to be fully realised at the end of the book, and extend far beyond it.
I liked this ambiguity very much, and found it to be very true to life. Whilst it does make the book more challenging to read (at least initially), it is much stronger because of this approach. It also means that the twists – when they do come – are both totally unexpected and wholly believable. One of the highest compliments I can pay a book is to say that I have no preconceived idea of where it would take me, and this was certainly true of Gods and Beasts, which at times I found to be genuinely surprising. At the same time, Mina ties the three storylines together beautifully at the end of the book, without making this unity seem forced.
The scenes of violence -which are not frequent – are very powerfully written. I don’t consider myself particularly squeamish, but the description of the post office in the wake of the shooting made my blood chill. ‘Sticky, bloody mist had settled on every surface… To move in the space was to feel contaminated by the metallic tang of blood. Brendan Lyons [the murder victim] was omnipresent. When Morrow looked up to give her eyes a break she saw puncture marks in the polystyrene ceiling tiles and realised that they were shards of bone.’
Later on in the book, a character describes a scene in which he is threatened by two local gangsters. He is taken to the cellar of a bar, where he finds another man, tied to a chair and horrendously tortured. ‘His face was beaten so badly [he] couldn’t tell if he was a young man or an old man… There was blood on the floor around him.’ Perhaps the most disturbing part of this scene is the fact that the gangsters themselves never mention or refer to him. ‘It was like he wasn’t there. He was just there to scare him, show him what they’d do.’
If you can’t already tell, I liked Gods and Beasts very much. Mina writes with a strong, quiet dignity, giving her characters the space to breathe and grow as the novel progresses. Their complexity is mirrored by the overlapping storylines, with the book very much an ensemble piece, equally concerned with the effects of a crime as its investigation. Like ripples on a pond, one can easily imagine the consequences of their actions continuing to cause waves way beyond the end of the book itself.