Denise Mina’s Top 10 Small-Town Noir Novels

Smoke from a fire in a desolate town indicates the beginnings of plague. Drawing by A.L. Tarter via Wikimedia Commons
Category: Reading

The fifth title in Denise Mina’s Alex Morrow series, Blood, Salt, Water hits shelves today. The novel concerns itself with the dark secrets that often lurk below the surface of seemingly idyllic small towns, something many other authors have also explored. Here, she shares some of her favourite small-town noir novels.


Blood, Salt, Water is set in Helensburgh, a beautiful small town on the West Coast of Scotland.

Denise Mina

Built three hundred years ago, the town was designed as an exclusive retreat from smoky Victorian Glasgow. At one time a quarter of all the millionaires in Britain had a house there. The central character, of the novel, Iain Fraser, is part of a servant class in the town. These people used to tend the great houses but are no longer required. As in many small towns there is an invisible underclass, trying to scratch a living from drugs.

The real subject of small-town noir is history. Small-town narratives are shaped by history: of the place, of the people. Anonymous big towns are composed of incomers. History is a set of rules, a way of doing and dealing, a plan. History in noir novels is hope, but also damnation: the history must form the core of the narrative. The most traditional noir narrative form is that of an outsider coming into the small town and trying to make sense of the set of rules being applied, inexorably, which have led to the death.

Helensburgh is uniquely beautiful. It has a contained geography, bound by hills on one side and sea on the other. Quite recently it was the victim of a spate of gang-related fires; no one could believe it because it was Helensburgh. Helensburgh. Of course it was Helensburgh. As the local paper headline said, ‘Hel. Mourns’.



1. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain

On a dusty road between two good places stands a roadside eatery. The sort of place glimpsed in the passing. An ill-matched couple own the place and manage fine until a no-good drifter turns up and takes a job offered to him.


I can still feel the dust kicked up from passing cars going somewhere better, and perspiration prickling my armpits. Fantastic and suffocating all at once.   


2) The Tremor of Forgery (1969) Patricia Highsmith

An American writer is stranded in Tunisia, in a hotel holiday complex that serves as a small town. It is the sheer heft of the place’s culture and history that corrodes the character of Howard Ingham. The tiny set of characters onstage are buffeted by events far away that they have no control over and increasingly little interest in. 


3) In Cold Blood (1966) Truman Capote

Capote’s ‘non-fiction novel’ about a murder in a small town brings noir in on a vicious northern blast across the plains. It is essentially an examination of the town of Holcomb and what was lost when a local family were murdered by chaotic drifters who happened by. It doesn’t haunt because it is non-fiction, but because Capote understood the beauty of small-town cohesiveness and what is lost by rupture.


Brighton Rock cover
4) Brighton Rock (1938) Graham Greene 

Greene’s genius with this novel is the town of Brighton itself. The geography of Brighton and its fading Edwardian glamour form a backdrop to an underclass of small-time thugs trying to scratch a livelihood, living in cheap boarding houses and meeting in tea rooms on the pier. The unique character of the town sets a sordid, shadowy tone. By the end all the grins are rictus, all the bunting sagging.


5) The Name of the Rose (1983) Umberto Eco

What could be more of a small town than an abbey? A specific set of rules, a set cast and an outsider coming in, trying to make sense of a serial killer who is operating according to those rules.

A brilliant, intoxicating read that poses huge philosophical and theological questions through the examination of a small society of brothers.


6) Winter’s Bone (2006) by Daniel Woodrell

The religious background in this book is what really captured me. The labyrinthine history of the families in a state of crisis, and Dolly’s determination, despite her age, seem to be ageless quests for security by those caught on the backhand of history.


World Made Straight cover
7)  The End of Everything (2011) Megan Abbott

The small town here is not a place but a time: the childhood friendship of three girls. It’s the intensity of the connection that forms the backdrop to a baffling disappearance that darkens everything around it. Her style is spare, her insights unique and the atmosphere gets darker and darker as the book hurtles on. Beautiful.


8) The Wicked Girls (2012) Alex Marwood

Like Brighton Rock, the village in this book is rent by conflict and division that imbue the story with an extraordinary tension. 


9)  The World Made Straight (2006) Ron Rash

I had a long conversation with Ron Rash about the Scottishness of Appalachian culture. Many of the characters in his fiction are so vivid and familiar that I felt I must know them. Afterwards I found out that everyone who reads him feels this way. He’s an extraordinary writer, and this is one of his best.


10) The Ice Harvest (2000) Scott Phillips

Wichita isn’t really a small town, but in Phillips’ debut novel it is snowbound and inescapable. Charlie Arglist’s foiled attempts to get out are exactly what being a teenager feels like, apart from the million dollars.


Competition: Win a copy of Blood, Salt, Water by Denise Mina + exclusive merchandise
Blood, Salt, Water by Denise Mina

Thanks to Orion, we've got 5 copies of award-winning Denise Mina's latest novel Blood, Salt, Water to give away. Plus, each of our lucky winners will get special, embroidered promotional patches, from the author, with their book.

All you have to do to enter is answer this simple question in the comments below or email your answer to marked 'Denise Mina Competition': 

- In which Scottish town is Blood, Salt, Water mainly set?

Closing date: 17:00, Friday 21 August 2015. Open to UK entrants only. Full terms and conditions.

Denise Mina

Critically acclaimed Glaswegian crime writer Denise Mina is the author of 11 previous novels. She also writes short stories, plays and comics, including writing Hellblazer, the John Constantine series for Vertigo, for a year. Since 2012 she has been adapting the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy as graphic novels. She is a regular contributor to TV and radio. In 2012, Denise won the Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award for The End of the Wasp Season and in 2013 she won the same award for Gods and Beasts.

Find out more at and follow Denise on Twitter @DameDeniseMina

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