The Long Drop: Denise Mina

“He doesn’t say anything compassionate about Isabelle or Anne, two dead seventeen-year-old girls. To him they are no more than skin-covered stage flats in a play about him.”

I knew very little about the murders committed by Scottish serial killer, Peter Manuel, who was hanged for some of his crimes in 1958, and while I tend to avoid fiction written about real people, Denise Mina’s The Long Drop sounded intriguing.

The Long Drop is both a reconstruction and a re-imaging of the case. The book opens in December 1957 with a businessman named William Watt who attends a meeting with career criminal Peter Manuel. The meeting has been brokered by celebrity lawyer Laurence Dowdall who, on the way to the meeting, gives Watt, his client, various pieces of advice about how to handle Manuel. This advice is needed as Peter Manuel is a slippery customer, manipulative, cunning and extremely dangerous.

The Long Drop

Dowdall, trying to hang onto professional integrity leaves Watt and Manuel alone. But why are Manuel and Watt meeting? For those (like me) who know very little about Manuel’s bloody, violent career, he was accused of, convicted and hanged for (as the book’s title suggests) murder. Watt’s wife, sister-in-law and daughter were three of the victims. They were shot in the Watt home, and initially Watt was the main suspect. The meeting between Manuel and Watt, brokered by Watt’s lawyer, is ostensibly for Watt to ascertain specific, secret information Manuel has regarding the murders.

The meeting morphs into a nightlong pub crawl with Manuel and Watt hitting many dingy, dank pubs of Glasgow. At this point, I put the book down. Could this have really happened? If you suspected that a man murdered your wife, daughter and sister-in-law, could you spend a whole night with him, buying him drinks? Truth is stranger than fiction. In the case of the Speed Freak Killers, for example, a large sum of money was promised to the killers in exchange of information about buried bodies. It’s possible that if you were desperate for information, you could put your personal feelings aside and make a pact with the devil. Possible if you had great personal restraint.

And William Watt was a desperate man. Although he was on holiday the night his family members were murdered, he’d taken the family’s dog, his wife’s dog with him–something he’d never done before, and eyewitnesses (who were later discredited) placed him on the road traveling back to Glasgow in the wee hours. Plus Watt had a mistress and his wife was an invalid. There was a lot at stake for Watt who was initially arrested but later released without charge.

Back to the book….

The Long Drop goes back and forth from the night (11 hours) in 1957 when Watt and Manuel went on an epic pub crawl to the trial of Peter Manuel in 1958. The night Watt and Manuel spend together reveals the dark side of a long vanished Glasgow. The smoke filled pubs habituated by the underworld in a city that will be renovated:

The coal smog is heavy and damp here, it swirls at ankle height. This dank world is peopled with tramps and whores from Glasgow Green and clapped out street fighters. A burning brazier lights men with fight-flattened noses slumped against a crumbling black wall.

Although this is a long dead case, with a terminal solution, Denise Mina brings the story to life while raising some intriguing questions both about the night Watt and Manuel spent together and about subjects raised during the trial. While Watt, who decides to “turn detective,” is seen as out-of-his-depth, a bit of a bumbler, Peter Manuel “is in a very different film. His would be European, black and white, directed by Clouzot or Melville, printed on poor stock and shown in art-house cinemas to an adults-only audience. There wouldn’t be violence or gore in the movie, this is not an era of squibs or guts-on-screen, but the implication of threat is always there.” 

Manuel is a sly, cunning psychopath and we see the various sides of the man. There’s the Manuel he’d like to be: a writer, a man about town, the man who’s courteous with women, but then there’s the sexually frustrated, violent son who intimidates his mother, and then there’s the charmer who tries to project his charisma and intelligence to the unbelieving jury. Manuel is a fantasist, a psychopath whose narcissism leads him to fire his defense counsel and conduct his own defense. We see Manuel’s staggering misreadings in the courtroom–evidence of his stunted emotional projection.

Peter Manuel does not know how other people feel. He has never known that. He can guess. He can read a face and see signs that tell him if someone is frightened or laughing. But there is no reciprocation. He feels no small echo of what his listener is feeling.

There’s a reimagining here–a fiction element of the novel which I cannot address fully without spoilers.  I understand why the author became so obsessed with this case, and why The Long Drop was created. For this reader, Denise Mina offered a possible explanation in a fill-in-the-blank way. As a work of fiction, it’s an excellent read, but while the author’s version is plausible, there’s an ethical position to this imagining. Those involved cannot challenge the book.

I follow the reviews written by fellow crime addict reader Cleo, and she also reviewed Denise Mina’s book, The Long Drop favourably.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Mina Denise

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