Review: SANCTUM by Denise Mina

sanctumminadenise4405_fI’ve been trying to whittle down my TBR shelves and plucked this one because I’ve owned it for over seven years without reading it. How preposterous. Especially as I love Mina’s writing.

Written after the Garnethill trilogy, which features a lovable if prickly social worker as the protagonist in some darkly comic stories, SANCTUM (apparently released as DECEPTION in the US) is a standalone novel which sees Mina heading in a completely different direction. In the novel’s prologue she tells us we’re about to read a sensational true crime diary that she owns, having been the successful bidder for the item at auction. What follows is a series of diary extracts written by Lachlan Harriot, the husband of a forensic psychiatrist who has been found guilty of murdering one of her former patients, convicted serial killer Andrew Gow. It starts just after Susie Harriot has been convicted herself when Lachlan thinks she is innocent and will be soon win an appeal. He offers to help by going through the documents and computer files in Susie’s home office. This prompts him to start his computerised diary and what he uncovers makes him question his understanding of what’s been going on with his wife. And his life.

I have to admit I didn’t really buy into the premise that this was a real world case (in fact I found the set up a bit naff) but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the fiction of a diary written from an interesting perspective. It says a lot for Mina’s skill that neither the naff-ness of the novel’s premise nor the unlikeable-ness of its narrator prevented me from getting into the book and staying with it.

It is compelling to feel like we are inside the head of someone who is undergoing some major, life-altering discoveries. His initial belief in Susie and willingness to do all he can to help get her out makes way for confusion and uncertainty as he learns new things. Snippets of information from various sources allow him to piece together an alternative version of his life and there is genuine suspense in the way Mina brings all this together. At the same time we watch Lachlan unravel somewhat in his personal life which is not all that surprising I guess. And its not what makes him unlikeable. He’s kind of a pratt to start with really in terms of his behaviour and life choices. He’s got a medical degree too but has never worked as a doctor, nor really as anything else and his decision to be a stay at home dad to the couple’s toddler daughter is not quite as redemptive as it might seem given the pair also have a full time nanny. Fair enough I suppose that he was fully occupied with his wife’s case when we meet him but I couldn’t help wondering what the heck he did all day before Susie got the sack and then went to prison. But even though he’s hardly endearing there are still some heart-wrenching moments when Lachlan has to visit Susie in prison, cope with the ‘help’ of his and Susie’s visiting family members and re-engage with normal life when he feels like everyone will be talking about him and/or Susie’s conviction.

SANCTUM’s storyline has some predictability to it but I didn’t pick the ultimate resolution and there were plenty of surprises along the way. I don’t know if we were supposed to feel like we got to know Susie – I didn’t but wasn’t that fussed – but the depiction of Lachlan is a treat. Irritating traits and all. The only thing missing for me was the dark comedy that I’ve come to associate with Mina’s work but as this novel was clearly an attempt at something brand new I won’t hold it against her. Perhaps not my favourite of Mina’s novels but still a cut above the average crime read.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Bantam Books [2002]
ISBN 0553813293
Length 362 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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5 Responses to Review: SANCTUM by Denise Mina

  1. Patti Abbott says:

    I have been meaning to try Mina for ages. I have trouble finding my way into her books though. Certain authors seem difficult to permeate for me and she is one. Not sure if it’s the writing style but I think that is it. Have never gotten far enough to blame it on the plots.

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  2. I know what you mean about Mina’s wit, Bernadette. Still, this one sounds like a really interesting sort of departure for her, and I give her credit for branching out like that. Not sure I’d like the main character, myself, but still, it’s an interesting change of pace.

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  3. kathy d. says:

    Interesting that you like it. This is the Denise Mina book I most disliked. Read 20 pages, did not like the story or characters and back to the library it went. The same thing happened to a friend.
    There are so many good books by her, the Garnethill trilogy, the Paddy Meehan trio, and the Alex Morrow books (except the first one). But several Morrow books are excellent — thought-provoking, well-written. She is fascinated about why people commit crimes and she delves into that topic and is not superficial.

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  4. kathy d. says:

    I think that Denise Mina is one of those writers who stirs controversy. She writes strong books. Some of the plot lines are painful and difficult to read about, but I find I am thinking as I read, not just turning pages. And then in the end I’m glad I read the book. She’s not preachy, but she delves into tough topics and writes good character development.

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