Tag Archives: based on true crime

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.

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Harriet Said: Beryl Bainbridge

“I don’t know if we were ever innocent.”

Harriet Said, Beryl Bainbridge’s first novel, is inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder which took place in New Zealand in 1954 and involved two, closely bonded teenage girls who murdered one of the girls’ mothers. The incident inspired the wonderful film Heavenly Creatures.  And of course, most of us know that one of the girls, Juliet Hulme, is now the author, Anne Perry. Apart from the bare bones of the real-life murder case, any other connections vaporize in Bainbridge’s book which explores the rich fantasy life of two teenage girls who obsess, dangerously, over a middle-aged married man.

Harriet Said takes place in England and the story is narrated by an unnamed 13 year old girl who has just returned home from boarding school to Formby. She was sent away thanks to her relationship with Harriet, who’s a year older, and the much more dominant of the pair. “Dirty stories” were found written in the narrator’s notebook, and then a neighbor, Mrs. Biggs, reported that the girls were behaving inappropriately with Italian prisoners of war.  So the narrator is packed off to boarding school as a time-out move, but the girls reconnect when Harriet returns from Wales. And, of course, they return to their old patterns of behaviour….

harriet-said

Unfortunately, what none of the adults in this story understand is that Harriet, and not the less attractive, lumpish narrator, is the true trouble maker here. Harriet dictates the diary, but it’s the narrator who writes the diary in case it is discovered. It’s Harriet who comes up with diabolical plans with the narrator passively agreeing. Harriet is dangerous because she is so charming; she’s the more attractive of the two girls, and even though she’s a known bad influence, she still manages to sway people in her favour. Self-possessed Harriet is much more dominant, taking the lead, controlling the action, creating meaning, and devising the rules in various transgressive events, but she’s also the leader because she’s more attractive, and the other girl, our narrator, always plays catch up and admires Harriet for her sangfroid and her “calm refusal to be blackmailed into submissiveness by parental grief.” Here’s an example of Harriet rewriting events:

“What’s that got to do with it?” asked Harriet, but not crossly. “I wrote that after we met those boys from the remand home when I took my clothes off and you wouldn’t because your knickers were filthy.”

“They weren’t filthy,” I protested. “I told you, they were my mum’s and they were pink with awful lace.”

These two girls are cocooned in their own fantasy life. Reality, in the form of their parents (and Harriet’s parents are a bit odd), is minimally intrusive, and as the weeks spin out, gradually the girls’ fantasies become increasingly dangerous as they begin to focus on Mr Biggs, a man they call the Tsar.  All teenage girls have fantasy lives (well to be honest, it’s part of the human condition, isn’t it?), but in the case of teenage girls, fantasy can take on a more dangerous edge especially if they experiment with sexuality and their newfound sexual power.

While the subject matter is intriguing, and the author does an excellent job of showing how these girls create, and exist, in a separate adolescent world, I’d place Harriet Said on the bottom of the Beryl Bainbridge stack read so far; the pacing plodded at times with little tension. I kept thinking of Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters, the tale of another teenage girl, and Harriet Said faded in comparison. Cleo, however, loved the book. So see  Cleo’s review for a different opinion.

Review copy.

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Observations on Stendhal’s Roman Tales

There are a couple of things in Stendhal’s Roman Tales that I can’t get out of my head. Here’s the first one which appears in the second story, Vittoria Accomramboni:

It should be realised that Paolo Orsini had grown enormously fat. His legs were thicker than a normal man’s body, and one of these massive limbs was infected with a disease called La Lupa, the she wolf, named thus because it had to be fed with large amounts of fresh meat, which were applied to the infected area. Otherwise, the raging disease, not finding dead flesh to devour, would hurl itself upon the living flesh which surrounded it.

This, of course, conjures up lots of images, but I was intrigued by this idea of La Lupa. I’d never heard of it before, and all I could think about is the flesh-eating bacteria along with terrible stories of amputations we hear about in the news. Is this what Orsini had? Or was he possibly an uncontrolled diabetic with an ulcerated leg? All speculation, of course, but I been thinking about the possibilities since I read the quote.

And then at one point in The Cenci, Stendhal goes into a marvellous aside on the Don Juan figure and he argues:

For a Don Juan to exist, there must be hypocrisy. The Don Juan character is an effect whose cause has no root in the ancient world. Religion in those days was a celebration, urging men to pleasure.

He goes on to say:

I attribute the emergence of a satanically inspired Don Juan to the Christian religion.

What a fascinating idea. I’m going to have to think about that.

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Roman Tales (or it sucks being a woman in 16th century Italy) by Stendhal

Therefore, kind reader, do not search in these pages for a striking style, shimmering with fresh allusions to fashionable modes of thought. Above all, do not expect the cloying emotions of a George Sand novel.”

Earlier this year, after reading a piece written by Mérimee, I decided to read more Stendhal, so I was delighted to receive a kindle version of Roman Tales for review. For its content, the Tales reminded me of The Celebrated Crimes from Alexandre Dumas, and coincidentally, both The Celebrated Crimes and Roman Tales includes a section on The Cenci. Anyway, here’s a brief rundown of the contents-

Roman talesRoman Tales is composed of three stories:

The Abbess of Castro

Vittoria Accoramboni

The Cenci

And an appendix:

The Geopolitical Terrain

Stendhal’s Popes 

Stendhal and Money

Brigands in Italy by Stendhal

Preface to The Cenci by Percy Bysshe Shelley

On the Cenci Portrait by Dickens

The three stories were published in France in 1839. A few years previously Stendhal “acquired from the archives of certain Roman patricians” the ‘right’ to copy some manuscripts which recalled some of the more famous trials of the 16th and 17th centuries. According to the introduction by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, the stories are more “adaptations” and not “faithful versions,” and the Abbess of Castro is “an original piece of writing.” The stories certainly read as though they were written by the same hand, and at the same time, while there’s an immediacy to the tales that smack of the sense of eye witness accounts, Stendhal allows himself to interject with comments about 16th century Italian society and values

While the stories are all different (and by that I mean that they have different elements that add to the drama), by the time I finished the book, I decided that the women of 16th Century Italy didn’t exactly have a fair shot at life. Why? Because the three women in the tales–in spite of their wealth, beauty, position, wit etc etc end up royally screwed and abused by the society in which they lived and died.

The Abbess of Castro is prefaced with background information on the power of Brigand culture, and we are told:

If anyone needs to know the history of Italy, the important thing is not to read the widely accepted authors. Nowhere has the value of a lie been better appreciated, nowhere better paid.

Thanks Stendhal, that’s good to know, and if anyone out there wants to suggest some histories to read, I’d be happy to hear from you. But back to the story which concerns a beautiful young woman, Elena de’ Campireali who falls in love with Giulio Branciforte against her family’s objections. While Guilio lives in a crude home on the outskirts of town, he’s the son of a famous brigand, and he becomes a brigand too. Naturally this is a relationship that’s frowned upon by Elena’s father, but the lovers manage to meet in secret a few times. This story illustrates the power of allegiances, and unfortunately Elena and Guilio find themselves on opposite sides. The de’ Campireali family are “distantly related” to the Orsini family, while Guilio belongs to the “Colonna faction.” These familial and political connections come crashing down to smash Elena’s secret romance. The events that take place separate the lovers, and Elena returns to the convent. The trouble doesn’t stop there, and their love story is fraught with tragedy when Elena’s mother and Prince Colonna interfere.

The second story, is Vittoria Accoramboni, Duchess of Bracciano. It’s a matter of conjecture which is the saddest story of the three in the collection, but I’d argue that Vittoria Accoramboni competes with The Cenci for first place. I already knew the gist of The Cenci, but the story of Vittoria was virgin territory to me. Vittoria is another beautiful, and apparently charming young woman given in an arranged marriage to Felice Peretti who was formally adopted by his uncle Cardinal Montalto–the man who later becomes Pope Sixtus V. The Cardinal was extremely fond of Vittoria and promoted and protected her brothers. The story turns ugly when Vittoria’s husband is murdered, and it’s rumoured that her family is behind the move to marry her off to yet another wealthy husband. Vittoria’s wishes don’t appear to come into the picture. Three days after the murder of Felice, Vittoria and her mother are living in the palace of the “enormously fat” Prince Paolo Giordano Orsini, the Duke of Bracciano, and the very man suspected of organising the murder of Felice.

Few believed that the murder could have been committed without the consent of the Accoramboni family. They blamed Vittoria’s brothers, who had been drawn by ambition into an alliance with a rich and powerful prince.

Trading Vittoria like a pawn ends badly. That’s as much of the story as I’ll give away, and what happens to Vittoria is not pretty. But that’s not the power of this story–its power comes from the realisation that the desire to possess Vittoria, fired presumably by a burst of lust, leads to an incredible amount of blood-letting, slaughter and torture. These are merciless times and we are told that “the dead were left to be scavenged by dogs.”

As for the third story, The Cenci, this one has to be the most famous of the bunch, so I don’t think I’m giving away too much to say that young Beatrice Cenci and her brother conspired to murder their father, Francesco Cenci. Given that the stepmother was also privy to, and assisted in the plan, it’s a safe bet to assume that Francesco Cenci was a monster, and the story gives details of his miserliness and “evil” behaviour. We are told he was “appalling,” but Francesco Cenci’s flaws also included perversion. In spite of his high rank, he served time in prison for “perverted love affairs.” It’s bad enough when a man takes his kinkiness to the point of prison, but Cenci forced his daughter Beatrice to submit to his unnatural demands. Isolated and with no avenue for legal alternatives Beatrice, her brother and her mother took matters into their own hands….

Roman Tales presents us with three very different women who all suffered terribly in one form or another. While Elena de’ Campireali tried to define her own destiny, she discovered that the forces of society were against her, and she could not lead the life she wanted. Vittoria was a pawn for her family; she too suffered horribly and rather unexpectedly. Beatrice Cenci decided that life with her father was “unbearable,” and since she was a prisoner in his home, she felt she had no recourse but to murder the man who tormented her. I would add that the murder was clumsily done, and it could have been carried out with far less tell-tale signs of violence.

There are no happy endings here for these women, and the question in each story is how far will the bloodshed spread before it’s stopped. Roman Tales is a marvellous collection which gives us a glimpse into another world. It’s a lawless, feudal world where alliances are paramount, and individuality–at least for the females–is not an option. When reading the stories, it struck me repeatedly how choices that were based on Free Will and individualism resulted in cascading violence and bloodshed, and yet at the same time this is a period of history in which remarkable figures appeared–albeit briefly in some cases. Roman Tales is highly recommended for anyone interested in this period.

Translated by Susan Ashe and Norman Thomas di Giovanni

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Hard Twisted by C. Joseph Greaves

“You got a problem with that, you let me know right now, and I’ll give you a ride straight back to your daddy.”

Written with a growing sense of menace, Hard Twisted from author C. Joseph Greaves is based on a true story and concerns homeless drifter, Dillard Garrett and his 13-year-old daughter, Lucile. It’s 1934, and homeless people travelling across America looking for work are a common sight, but what happens to Lucile is unusual. She becomes involved in the 1935 “skeleton murder” case and subsequent trial.  

Lucile’s story is interrupted by transcripts of the trial, so questions about Lucile’s complicity are followed by the fictionalized versions of events. Leading questions regarding Lucile’s relationship with the accused murderer, for example, insinuate that this 13-year-old girl went along for the ride,  but the narrative tells another story–a story of deprivation, a subsistence existence, and a complete lack of social agencies for a homeless 13-year-old to apply to for aid. Weigh that against the promise of a permanent home, baths and regular meals.

The novel wastes little time showing the dire circumstances in which Lucile Garrett and her father Dillard are living when they meet a persuasive drifter named Clint Dillard who gives the Garretts a ride in his slat-sided Ford Truck which is packed with gamecocks.

The man looked across her lap and studied her father’s shoes. He said his name was Palmer, and that he was a Texan, and a cowboy. He wore sharp sideburns and a clean Resistol hat cocked forward over pallid eyes gone violet in the fading glow of sunset, and she could see that he was small–perhaps no taller than she–and that something fiercely defiant, something feral, was in his smallness.

Although Palmer is crafty about it, it’s soon obvious that giving a ride to the Dillards was not motivated by altruism but by lust for 13-year-old Lucile, but the question becomes how to separate father and daughter? This is achieved in subtle, sly stages and coated with promises to a desperate couple who have no prospects for anything better.

Written with an authenticity that seeps from the pages, we feel the half-starved Dillards spending endless sunbeaten days on the dusty roads and sleeping rough at night, as author C. Joseph Greaves very effectively recreates a hellish period in American history:

They’d built a fire in the lee of the ruined house, and her father squatted before it stirring red flannel hash with a spoon. The temperature had dropped with the sun and she wore a mackinaw now like a mantle while he sat on his heels and rubbed his hands and warmed them over the skillet, the tumbled walls around them shifting and changing, moving inward and the outward again as though breathing in the soft glow like a living thing.

With passages such as that, there’s an unspoken question ‘how long can the Dillards survive?’ so initially it seems like a stroke of luck when they meet Clint Palmer and he wants to go into business with Lucile’s father. But at the same time, there’s a growing sense of unease.

For the rest of the story, well you have to read the novel. At the end of the book there’s a section ‘author’s notes and acknowledgements’ in which the author explains how he became interested in the Skeleton Murder Case when hiking in John’s Canyon, San Juan County, Utah. Through a history of the region, the author heard about the Garretts and Palmer along with the disclaimer that there are several versions of events. Greaves, clearly obsessed with the story (you’d have to be to take on the required research) establishes his own narrative of events with Hard Twisted.

On the down side, once the story is underway there’s not a great deal of tension–although we know something bad, something horrible is going to happen–it’s just a matter of when, where, and who. Lucile, nicknamed ‘Bonnie Parker’ by Palmer, is a limp character, beaten down by circumstances to expect little and demand nothing. As such she makes a perfect, sad victim for Palmer, but not a very interesting character.

On the positive side, the book very successfully establishes, through its atmospheric descriptions and its use of language, a specific time and place in history. These are characters who are forced out of society but need society to exist, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that excursions into society ultimately ended in murder. Lucile Garrett met a psychotic killer at a unique time when drifting anonymously through the country was not something that raised eyebrows. Try taking a 13-year-old across country now, sleeping out in the open. See what happens, how it long it takes before someone drops a dime and you find yourself tasered and wearing one of those orange jumpsuits.

Back in Lucile’s day, it was an everyday occurrence for families to trek across the United States looking for non-existent work, and that brought them to a subsistence mode of survival, living for the next meal, and expecting to skip a few. Lucile and her father were vulnerable to hope and that’s where Clint Palmer and his gamecocks came in. In the final evaluation, the author succeeds in recreating a desperate time which unleashed both good and bad people from society–a time in which it was impossible to differentiate those with bad intentions from those who were just trying to get by.

American author Russell Banks makes the point in his novels that those who live in poverty have lives that are open to crime–not that they commit crimes but that they have a difference range of vulnerability than the affluent–they lack the defenses of those who have more resources. Hard Twisted is one such example of lives of poverty having no barriers against crime.

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