The Long Drop BY DENISE MINA
BY DENISE MINA (HARVILL SECKER) OUT NOW
“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.