Denise Mina on The Less Dead and talking to Reese Witherspoon

Virgin Radio

8 May 2021, 12:54

Denise Mina joined the Graham Norton Radio Show with Waitrose to talk about her latest crime thriller, The Less Dead, and about becoming part of Reese Witherspoon’s book club.

The Less Dead follows the story of a GP, Margo Dunlop, who finds herself on the hunt for her mother's murderer. Denise told Graham, “It’s really about historic murders of street sex workers, and Margo doesn’t want to be involved, but she finds out that a man who murdered her mother is now following her, because she looks so much like her.”

She continued, “It’s a chase book, and I hope it’s quite exciting, but it’s really about why we would care about a GP and we wouldn’t really care about a street sex worker, and why those different victims are weighed differently.”

The story is based on a series of sex worker murders in the 1980s, and Denise explained to Graham that she noticed there was a lot of attention paid to one of the victims in particular. “She was such a lovely woman and she came from a really nice family, but a lot of the other women didn’t get the same kind of attention. A lot of those women grew up in care. I knew a couple of them actually, and they were pretty scary ladies. You shouldn’t have to be blonde and middle-class and come from a lovely family for it to matter that that happens to you. We should protect everybody.” 

The Scottish crime writer added, “Once you know, you just can’t not see it. It’s everywhere. People think it’s the police, it’s not the police. People think it’s crime writers, it’s not crime writers. It’s the culture. You have to be blonde, middle-class, thin, not chaotic… basically not you or I.”

When discussing with Graham whether she knew any of the families that were affected by the crimes on which The Less Dead was broadly based, she admitted that she did. “Glasgow is tiny, and families tend to be quite big and everybody is very connected. So somebody I had known for years and years… we were out walking dogs in the park and I started telling her what I was writing a book about, and she said ‘oh that was my cousin.’”

She went on, “In Glasgow it’s almost a crime to not make conversation, so you do know loads and loads of people. It’s not like London where you can kind of keep to yourself, or Edinburgh where, if you make small-talk, people punch you in the face!”

Despite the dark themes within The Less Dead, Graham noted that there is a lot of humour in the book. Denise agreed, saying, “I think if you are dealing with very dark things, things are much, much funnier. I don’t know why that is. Police officers often have a really brilliant sense of humour. Nurses who work in A&E have always got a really brilliant sense of humour. You need it. Humour has a function. It’s not just for entertainment, it is a way of blowing off pressure.” 

She joked, “It’s quite funny, because some people find the books absolutely hilarious, and some people find the books distasteful or think that maybe I need therapy!”

Prior to the release of The Less Dead, Denise’s previous novel, 2019’s murder-mystery Conviction, garnered the attention of actress Reese Witherspoon. Each month, the Hollywood icon picks books she loves with a woman at the center of the story and shares them as part of the popular Reese’s Book Club. Denise recalls the surreal experience of receiving a phone call from the film star. “She phoned and I was sitting in the bedroom. We had quite a long conversation and she said we’d like to make you part of the book club… She was so sweet and such an amazing woman. After about a half-an-hour conversation she hung up and I realised that it could really have been anyone American! It could have been anybody!”

When talking to Graham about being part of Reese’s Book Club, Denise recounted an awkward incident which occured recently. “They sent me a giant gift box of amazing food. The box arrived, and you know, nothing has been happening during Covid. So we opened the box and everyone in the house came and we all ate everything. We were going, ‘what lovely people’. We got to the very bottom and we realised that I was supposed to take a photo of myself with the box before we ate all the food. We’d already thrown the wrappers away! They were covered in fish oil, so we had to get it all out and reconstruct it and take a photo.”

The inclusion in Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club was another accolade in Denise’s already very successful career. In 2014, for instance, she was inducted into the Crime Writers' Association Hall of Fame, and in 2017 she won the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. You aren’t likely to hear her shouting about her successes from the rooftops though. “I don’t really talk about it because if you admit to being successful in Glasgow, someone is entitled to beat you to death with a shoe, so I’ve always hidden the fact!

“I mean, I’ve been shortlisted for the LA Times Book of the Year, and stuff like that, but the book was on the New York Times best-seller list and that’s the first time that’s happened, and that’s because of Reese Witherspoon.

“It’s not just about being good, it’s about being promoted, and she does that for people and she does it for quite obscure books that she really loves. She reads them all, because she was talking to me about the content of the book. So she’s not just a corporate entity, she’s a proper reader.”

The Less Dead arrives in paperback in book shops next week. When asked by Graham how she planned to celebrate its release, Denise told him, “I may give the air a mild, weak-wristed fist-pump and maybe eat a packet of Oreos. I’m not sure!” 

For more great interviews listen to The Graham Norton Radio Show with Waitrose, Saturdays AND Sundays from 09:30am on Virgin Radio, or catch up on-demand here.