The Long Drop by Denise Mina
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.
Based on true events, The Long Drop is an extraordinarily unsettling, evocative and compelling novel from a writer at the height of her powers.
Shocking, but perfect. This is an astounding piece of work. I grew up in Glasgow hearing stories of Peter Manuel and lived for a time in Burnside where one set of his family murders took place. His name is legend amongst Glaswegians not just for the brutality of his crimes, but for the way he thought he could box clever and lie without compunction in order to mislead those who sought to capture him. There was no-one in Glasgow who had a higher opinion of Peter Manuel than Manuel himself.
William Watt was a successful businessman, the father of the first family killed, in their beds one night. Watt had been imprisoned for their murders, despite having the cast iron alibi of being eighty miles away at the time. Released from prison, he let it be known that he would pay good money to uncover who was responsible for his family’s massacre, even though the truth wasn’t quite that simple.
Denise Mina has taken the night that Watt and Manuel spent together – somewhat surprisingly, introduced by the well-known crime solicitor, Lawrence Dowdall, and has put together an altogether convincing and compelling narrative of the events on that evening.
But this book is more than the tale of a deadly sociopath, a man without empathy; a man who when on trial for his life, sacked his barrister and defended himself in court, addressing the jury for six hours.
What makes it stand out is Mina’s rich prose; the way that she accurately and chillingly depicts the criminal justice system in the 50’s. Dispassionately, but with a clear exposition, she lays bare the social mores of the time.
It is sometimes hard to believe that within my lifetime the Police and the Glasgow criminal underworld had more than a common understanding, when the Glasgow Corporation may have borne more than a passing resemblance to Tammany Hall and where influence, whichever side of the law it fell on, was everything, and respectability could be a monetary concept.
It was, as Mina points out, 1958, a time when a husband has the legal right to rape and beat his wife and it will be considered a private matter.
The book alternates between the trial of Manuel and the evening with Watt and it provides a fascinating insight into the Glasgow of the 1950’s. This was the High Court, where VIP seats were reserved away from the Hoi polloi for those wishing to stress their importance by visiting the trial.
Cigarettes, matches and ashtrays are provided for witnesses. The trial was full of observers every day, sixty seats, all filled by women who queued overnight for three weeks to get a seat. It is not clear why they come; Manuel is considered handsome. Is it that, or the power that he seems to wield? This is the trial of a man who has been accused of murder, robbery, theft and who stops in the midst of his murdering carnage to make himself a sandwich.
Only adults are allowed into the trial, such is the heinous nature of the crimes that a sixteen year old boy is turned away after queuing because the evidence will be too upsetting.
Mina’s writing is crystal sharp; her detail is exquisite – down to the meal that Manuel paid extra for during his trial – and the novel as a whole exudes authenticity. It is a brilliant exposition of what happened that night and how Manuel was was finally brought to justice.
Along the way, the book is populated with characters, some ordinary, some legendary. Manuel’s father, Samuel who is prepared to cover again and again for his son and his devoutly Catholic mother, Brigit, who will finally understand that there is no redemption for her son.
I never knew the origin of the sectarian song that Mina pins to the gangster Billy Fullerton, and which, to our eternal shame, is still sung in Glasgow.
There is so much to this book that it shines out as an outstanding read of 2017. I can’t tell you how much this book excited me and how good the writing is.
Above all, it is an acutely observed portrait of Glasgow and its people, borne from thought, excellent writing and first-rate research. It is remarkable and should undoubtedly be an award winner.
The Long Drop is published by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing on March 2nd 2017