Category Archives: Mina Denise

The Less Dead: Denise Mina

In Denise Mina’s gritty crime novel, The Less Dead, single Glaswegian doctor Margo, following the death of her adoptive mother, seeks out her birth family, only to collide into a dark world of murder. Margo discovers a cache of letters from her birth mother’s sister but kept from her by her adoptive mother. Margo arranges a meeting with her long-lost relative, and after a few minutes spent in the company of her Aunt Nikki, it would seem that Margo was extremely lucky to have been adopted–even if that situation wasn’t perfect.

When people decide to go hunting for lost friends or relatives, there’s usually some impetus at work, and that is true in both Margo and Nikki’s case. Margo, who has just split for her long-term boyfriend (well, sort of) is pregnant, and with her personal life stagnating, she becomes curious about her past. In Nikki’s case, she wants to enlist Margo’s help in catching the man who murdered Margo’s mother decades earlier, a 19 -year-old sex worker named Susan.

While Margo wants to take the whole reunion thing slowly, and is interested in finding out about her birth mother, she is ill prepared to learn the ugly truth. It’s earth shattering to discover that she was the child of a heroin addict, and that her Aunt Nikki, who seems somewhat unbalanced, was also a heroin user.

Given the class divide, the meeting between Margo and Nikki does not go well. Nikki isn’t really interested in Margo as a person, she only wants to enlist her help in the hunt for Susan’s killer. Nikki insists that the murderer is a dirty cop. It’s just all too much for Margo, and she walks away. Naturally over the years, she’d imagined her birth family, but nothing she imagined prepared her for the truth.

Splintered. She imagined all of these alternative selves existed in parade worlds and these other lives have meant so much to her. They fostered possibilities and comforted her when things were miserable at home.

But once Margo is aware of her past, she can’t undo the knowledge, so it’s down the rabbit hole: soon she’s looking at news reports and even graphic crime scene photos. Margo’s interest in the case and her contact with Nikki stirs the slumbering past. Margo was unknowingly protected by class, education and in essence a new identity. All of those protections disappear once she steps into the nightmare of her mother’s murder.

The class divide between Margo and Nikki is well created, and since Margo is the spitting image of her mother, there’s a weird time warp effect as Nikki explains Glasgow’s terrible history of heroin use, and the murders of sex workers who were seen as easy targets by predators. There are parallel realities here: Nikki’s world in which women are slaughtered and no one cares, and Margo’s world where sex workers are far off in the hidden corners of society. There’s some great secondary characters here including author Jack Robertson, whose self-published book. Terror on the Streets argues that the murdered sex workers were victims of a serial killer which is contrary to the police claims. For crime fans, this is an entertaining read. Not gory, and the premise is off the beaten track.

Review copy

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Mina Denise

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Mina Denise