Thursday, March 2, 2017


THE LONG DROP by Denise Mina (Vintage, March 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

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.

Denise Mina is a heck of a good crime writer, and in her latest offering she turns her pen towards a retelling of a real-life crime in 1950s Glasgow. More particularly, towards the bizarre events that saw serial killer Peter Manuel meeting with William Watt, the husband and father of two of his victims - a man who had himself been accused of the crime - and in effect going on a drinking binge together for an entire night in Glasgow. A dangerous yet strangely exhilarating situation for both of them, as they tried to outfox each other while also enjoying the night out on the town.

Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say.

This is quite a different style of book for fans of Mina's earlier Garnethill, Paddy Meehan, and Alex Morrow series. It's a literary true crime tale, where Mina has combed historic documents to bring the crime, and that time, to vivid life on the page. At the Granite Noir festival in Aberdeen last weekend, where Mina was onstage for sessions dealing with crime fiction vs true crime, and the nature of evil, she called her book a 'reimagining' of the missing hours of Manuel and Watts' late-night escapades, as well as a different take on the official Peter Manuel 'serial killer' story that was told by the press.

Elegantly written, THE LONG DROP is a cracking page-turner, where even if you know something of the real-life tale, and its results, you're drawn in, and pulled along. A stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it kind of book. I certainly did. Mina is a master storyteller, regardless of whether her characters are fictional or based on real persons. Because her writing is so good, she's able to digress and thread in historical details and facts without losing the flow. THE LONG DROP isn't just a story of what might have happened on that strange night between Watt and Manuel, but a superb insight into Glasgow of the time, from its policing and justice systems, to family life, to the bars and 'hard men' of the city.

Another thing that elevates THE LONG DROP is Mina's touch for character, her insights into human nature. From Watts and Manuel through to supporting players and even those in the background, Mina brings her entire 'cast' to life exceptionally well. I got a good sense of who people were, an idea of maybe why they did what they did - even if it was something strange or despicable. To clarify, I don't mean that Mina 'spells everything out' for the reader. Instead, like great writers can, she shows us peoples lives, allows room for empathy, and let's the reader work things out for ourselves.

Overall I found THE LONG DROP to be an intriguing book from a masterful author. It gave me a real sense of 1950s Glasgow, as much or more than the case of Peter Manuel, notorious serial killer.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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