All I knew of THE LONG DROP before bringing it home from the library was that it is a standalone work by a writer I admire, not least because she takes risks with her storytelling techniques rather than sticking to a winning formula as I’m sure she could more easily do. This latest book sees Denise Mina offer something different again: a fictionalised account of real events. Namely the sad, murderous life of Scotland’s worst serial killer Peter Manuel who preyed on the people of Glasgow and surrounding areas in the late 1950’s. Naturally enough given that her works are so disparate in style and subject matter I haven’t liked all of Mina’s books equally, but the one constant in everything I’ve read to date is exquisite writing. THE LONG DROP is no exception to this rule. It is a beautifully written tale of utter ugliness.
Not surprisingly given her penchant for narrative risk-taking, Mina approaches her subject in a kind of sideways manner by first introducing us to William Watt. He is under suspicion of having killed his wife, her sister and his daughter though he swears to have been miles away at the time. Because he fears the police will never look elsewhere for his family’s killer even if they don’t have enough evidence to prove his own guilt, he embarks on an attempt to unmask the culprit himself. Through a series of vaguely shady connections he meets Manuel who he is convinced (rightly) committed the murders of his family. The unlikely pair spend a drunken night together in which both reveal more about themselves than either would have planned. The events of this night play out across the length of the novel, interspersed with scenes from Manuel’s trial. An event where almost no one wants to give evidence and, after firing his lawyers, Manuel seals his fate with a daft and self-incriminating attack on key witnesses including his own mother.
Although there appears to be some doubt about just how many people Manuel killed and whether or not he might have been so mentally ill that his mental state should have played a mitigating role in deciding his fate, most people do seem to agree that he murdered at least 7 people for no reason other than his base desires. Possibly as many as 15. So it is not surprising that he is depicted as a delusional, deeply unlikable and frightening man whose own mother feels mostly relief when he is sentenced to death. But aside from a couple of minor players (more about them in a minute) none of the characters in Mina’s version of the story are much of an improvement. Watt is depicted as an adulterous, socially grasping creep who may even have played a role in procuring at least his wife’s murder. And 1950’s Glasgow – at least as much of a character in the book as the two men – comes across as vying for status as Dante’s eighth circle of Hell. Poverty and crime is the norm and no one, especially women, believes that rape is a real thing. This is just one glimpse of the city’s miserableness
If Hamilton [giving evidence in court] is upset by the sight of drunkenness then he’s living in the wrong city. Between lunchtime closing and the pubs reopening for the evening Glasgow is carpeted with drunk men. They loll on pavements, piss themselves at bus stops, fight invisible foes in the streets.
I love the way Mina can provide such a vivid picture of a place and its people with so few words. And so even though for most of the book I was actively fighting the urge to close its covers and leave its truly awful story unfinished I kept reading due to Mina’s evocative, almost hypnotic writing. It had me in uncontrollable tears twice in its couple of hundred pages. Once when it introduced the father of one of Manuel’s victims whose heartbreak at his daughter’s fate is palpable and again when we meet Brigit Manuel. Peter’s mother. Who loves her son as much as she fears him but can’t bring herself to lie for him like his father has repeatedly done. Brigit’s is a minor role in Mina’s version of events but I think I will remember her long after I wipe her hideous son from my memory.
It’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend THE LONG DROP given that it is a truly grim read. And I’m not entirely comfortable with all of Mina’s fictionalising choices, particularly her seemingly unorthodox interpretation of court transcripts to implicate William Watt in his family’s murder which just seems bloody unfair given the man cannot speak in his own defence. But even with these caveats I am, on balance, glad to have read the book. I can forgive a lot for great writing and haunting, if confronting, imagery and character depiction.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Random House, 2017
Length 240 pages
Book Series Standalone
Source of review copy Borrowed from library