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Book of the Week: Marion McLeod reviews a thriller about a Glasgow serial killer

Marion McLeod reviews an ‘icy-cold’ account of a Scottish serial killer by the brilliant Denise Mina.

Scottish writer Denise Mina has been dubbed Glasgow’s answer to Edinburgh’s Ian Rankin. Having written a dozen crime novels, several plays and films, a comic (Hellblazer) and three graphic novels (adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy), she has decided to have a go at true crime with The Long Drop.

It’s set in 1950s Glasgow and tells the story of arch crim Peter Manuel. There’s not a soul in Scotland, I gather, does not pale at the mention of Peter Manuel. He butchered at least nine people in a bloody two-year spree.

I was halfway through The Long Drop when the Scottish actor Brian Cox turned up on radio one Sunday morning. It was a nice piece of synchronicity. Cox has the lead in the new movie, Churchill, so he and Wallace Chapman spoke first of that. Then Chapman turned to Cox’s talent for portraying truly nasty, top-drawer villains: Hannibal Lecter, for instance, in the film Manhunter. (Cox was there five years before Anthony Hopkins.)

“Well,” said Cox, “I based my Lecter on a Scottish criminal called Peter Manuel, a serial killer before the term was even invented.”  He was evil incarnate. “Of course there are many versions of evil,” said Cox, “but I love the iceberg Lecter, where you see only the top third – the Lecter that lives amongst us.”

Denise Mina’s version gives us just that – a villain living amongst us, far more chilling than any iceberg. Manuel’s legend lives on amongst the Scots, even amongst those born long after his execution. So there’s not much to be milked in the way of plot suspense. It’s the quality of the telling that counts.

Mina limits her Peter Manuel story to a period of eighteen months. His career actually began at the age of twelve. He quickly ran up a string of convictions for rape and for robbery with violence. Mina threads some of this into her narrative. But basically she opts to focus on Manuel’s final months.

She opens on the evening of Monday 2 December 1957. It is Glasgow but not as we know it, Glasgow before the Clean Air Act. “Above the roofs every chimney belches black smoke. Rain drags smut down over the city like a mourning mantilla.”

The grim and grimy city is the book’s second most important character. Mina, born 1966, is too young to remember it, but she’s done her research and describes the grit with a Dickensian relish. Once or twice she overdoes it, I think. It’s a black story she’s telling, and she’s always been good at making ambience earn its keep, but this time I could have done with a little less soot.

That’s my only reservation. The story is otherwise trimmed to the bone. We meet Peter Manuel on that wet December night, in Whitehall’s Restaurant and Lounge. Thirty, and three days out of prison, he has come to meet Laurence Dowdall, a lawyer, and William Watt, a businessman. Watt’s family have been brutally murdered, his daughter sexually attacked. Watt thinks Peter Manuel might have inside information, he wants him to tell anything he knows.

Manuel could tell Watt a lot, since it was he was the murderer. But for now he sits in Whitehall’s, smart in sports coat and tie, drinking and blowing thick streams of cigarette smoke. Before we know it, he has headed out on an all-night pub crawl with William Watt, his new friend. It’s creepy. Very creepy.

Glasgow novelist Denise Mina and her debut true-crime book, The Long Drop

Psychopaths are in the end very boring, given their lack of empathy. Mina rarely takes us inside Manuel’s head. But her dialogue – the entire first half of the book is given over to this eleven-hour bender – is convincing and gripping.

The second half is, if anything, even more so. Covering the period May – July 1958, it moves to the High Court. I wonder if Mina has read Helen Garner. Both do courtroom drama brilliantly. Both create heart-racing suspense against the odds. Understatement amplifies horror. Mina’s dialogue is terse, the narration concise. It doesn’t matter a jot that we all know the outcome.

When Manuel’s mother appears on the stand, a note of pathos briefly breaks through the chill. But chill, a page-turning chill, returns and the last chapter arrives quickly. There are lots of short sentences. The long drop – considered a more “humane” method of hanging – is prepared. Peter Manuel, the third-to-last person to be hanged in Scotland, waits. His fellow prisoners watch. And the description of the dispatch fair takes your breath away.

She’s a great storyteller, Denise Mina, whether working with fact or fiction, or anywhere in between. She came here in 2012, as a guest at Wellington Writers’ and Readers’. She was spiky, lively, witty and very, very warm. It was the warmth of her detective novels, her appealing female leads, with their messy domestic and emotional lives, which first attracted me to her work but it’s no surprise to find she can do icy cold too.

The Long Drop by Denise Mina (Harvill Secker, $37) is available at Unity Books.

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