“The writ­ing’s ca­sual air makes it feel like be­ing told a story in the pub”

Peter Manuel doesn’t like to think of him­self as a crim­i­nal, al­though his rap sheet is a laun­dry list of grotes­queries. No, Peter Manuel likes to think of him­self as a sto­ry­teller. So when he reaches out to Wil­liam Watt, a man ac­cused of mur­der­ing his wife, daugh­ter and sis­terin-law, he’s plan­ning to tell him a story.

Watt is des­per­ate for an­swers about what hap­pened to his fam­ily on the night he went on a fish­ing trip and re­turned to tragedy; Manuel wants... well, he’s not en­tirely sure, but it def­i­nitely in­volves be­ing recog­nised as the writer he thinks he is. The prob­lem for Manuel is that he has no skill for nar­ra­tive. Hap­pily, though, the same can’t be said for Scot­tish au­thor Denise Mina. While her sub­ject talks him­self into cor­ners, trips over his lies, and mis­in­ter­prets his au­di­ence’s en­thu­si­asm for his clumsy em­bel­lish­ments, Mina skil­fully weaves a hyp­notic story around a shock­ing true crime story from 1950s Glas­gow.

Manuel re­ally was a rapist and mur­derer who ac­tu­ally com­mit­ted the crimes ex­plored in this novel; and he re­ally was one of the last men to be hanged in Scot­land be­fore cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment was abol­ished. But al­though his story’s been told many times be­fore, The Long Drop feels like a fresh – and es­pe­cially ter­ri­fy­ing – take on the facts.

The nar­ra­tive skips back and forth in time be­tween the end of Manuel’s trial and the early stages of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But though care has clearly been taken in the con­struc­tion of the story, Mina’s real clev­er­ness is in her choice of tone and lan­guage. Her writ­ing has a ca­sual air to it that makes read­ing it feel like you’re be­ing told a story in the pub – prob­a­bly an in­salu­bri­ous, saw­dusty es­tab­lish­ment like those fre­quented by Manuel and his as­so­ci­ates. It’s in­ti­mate, like the best kind of gos­sip; the story’s hor­ri­ble, but there’s no way you’d ever want to stop Mina telling it be­fore she got to the end.

Speak­ing of the end, the ti­tle looks like a spoiler, but Manuel’s fate isn’t the point. The Long Drop isn’t a mur­der mys­tery, it’s a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller, with the em­pha­sis on “psy­cho­log­i­cal”. Mina makes Manuel a gen­uinely fright­en­ing fig­ure, but she also im­bues him with pathos; he’s a to­tal creep, but he’s not the boogey­man, just an ar­ro­gant, grasp­ing crim­i­nal. He’s all too hu­man, and that’s what makes this re­ally scary.

If you ac­tu­ally were hear­ing this story in the pub, you’d prob­a­bly or­der a good stiff drink to see you home af­ter­wards.

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