THE LONG DROP
Crime literature fascinates us; you only have to look at the popularity of Bute Noir and our mothership Bloody Scotland to see that. Add a dollop of real life crime to the mix and that fascination ramps up to dizzying levels. In the Long Drop, Denise Mina blends crime fact and crime fiction to create an unputdownable novel that horrifies us as much as it hypnotises.
So, what’s the book about? This from the cover notes:
William Watt wants answers about his family’s murder. Peter Manuel has them. But Peter Manuel is a liar.
William Watt is an ordinary businessman, a fool, a social climber.
Peter Manuel is a famous liar, a rapist, a criminal. He claims he can get hold of the gun used to murder Watt’s family.
One December night in 1957, Watt meets Manuel in a Glasgow bar to find out what he knows.
Peter Manuel terrorised 1950s Lanarkshire with a string of rapes and murders at a time when rapes and murders were rare and serial killers rarer. Ask anyone who lived in the area at the time and they will most surely remember the headline splashes of murder and then the newspaper court coverage of the good-looking psychopath who murdered at least eight people in the Uddingston and Birkenshaw areas on the outskirts of Glasgow.
William Watt was away on a fishing trip to Argyll when he was informed about his family’s murder. A serial womaniser, police quickly suspected him of being the killer and he was sent to the notorious Barlinnie prison for nearly 70 days, all the while protesting his innocence. On his release, he publicly vowed to find the real killer. Attention-seeking fantasist Manuel got in touch and promised to reveal the killer’s details. It is recorded by Watt’s lawyer, Lawrence Dowdalls, that Watt and Manuel met on more than one occasion.
From these facts, Denise Mina weaves her tale.
The criminal career, trial and execution of Peter Manuel is well-documented and fairly cut-and-dried, so it takes a huge amount of skill to turn well-known facts into a thrilling read, but Mina draws upon her ample experience (and research) and fashions it into a real page-turner. It is little wonder that The Long Drop has won the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime at Bloody Scotland this year.
The litany of assaults and murders are, of course, horrifying and compelling but more so (for me) is the idea that a man who lost his family could sit and drink all night with the man who took it all away from him. Granted, he was looking for hard evidence from Manuel, but imagine if it was your 17 year-old daughter and your wife that had been murdered, could you have gone for a night’s drinking with the person you suspected had done it?
Me neither – what kind of man could do that? Perhaps the kind of man that was already familiar with the darker corners of Glasgow? The drink-fuelled night spent in the seamier haunts of Glasgow has such a ring of authenticity about it (people used to drive whilst extremely drunk), you can smell the beer and taste the cigarette smoke and the macho culture of 50s Glasgow is palpable.
We are introduced to colourful real-life characters, such as Dandy McKay, a feared Glasgow gangster with bizarre fashion sense – plenty of money, but no style.
The story also segues into wonderfully written chapters that look at the story from the point of view of three or so of the minor characters; little vignettes that add additional depth and dimension to the story. I found the chapter based on the Isabelle Cooke’s father very powerful.
I admit, I struggled with some of the court conversations. Parts of the dialogue are quite strange and at Bute Noir Mina confirmed that when she was reading the court transcript of Manuel questioning the witnesses (he dismissed his legal team and opted to represent himself), she sometimes felt that she had missed out a page or that the pages were in the wrong order. However, she takes this weird disjointedness, which in the hands of a less experienced author could have sunk the whole book, and manages to parse it into the backstory that she has created.
In the end there is no surprise, Peter Manuel still swings in a long drop, but Mina doesn’t stop the story there. She extends her gaze beyond the high walls of Barlinnie and looks out over the city and into the future – the savage assaults that are coming: the destruction of Glasgow to make way for the coming of the M8, the shady land deals that turned men into millionaires overnight, and she leaves us wondering – is the story of Peter Manuel so very cut and dried after all?