Tuesday 21 November 2017

Murder on mean streets of Glasgow

Crime: The Long Drop Denise Mina, Harvill Secker, €15.99

Denise Mina describes rotten, unjust, predatory world of 1950s Glasgow
Denise Mina describes rotten, unjust, predatory world of 1950s Glasgow
The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Hilary A White

Twelve novels into an award-winning career, "Tartan noir" queen Denise Mina makes her first foray into the true-crime subgenre by going back to a grisly killing spree that rocked Glasgow and its surrounds in the mid-1950s. She brings her renowned atmospherics and acute characterisation to a saga that at times seems as bemusing as it was blood-soaked.

Peter Manuel - dubbed "the beast of Birkenshaw" by tabloids at the time - is regarded as Scotland's first proper serial killer, having butchered eight victims around Lanarkshire between 1956 and 1958. In 1957, he murdered three women in their Glasgow home - the wife, daughter and sister-in-law of businessman William Watt. Despite being away on a fishing trip that night, Watt ended up being a principal police suspect and at one stage looked like he might hang. Mina mischievously develops the idea that Watt had a role in the multiple homicide. However, the real seam of peculiarity in The Long Drop is, as the name slyly alludes to, in tandem with its more obvious gallows reference, a drinking binge that Manuel and Watt supposedly went on between the murders and the trial. Watt was doing his own amateur sleuthing and Manuel - a compulsive liar - said he had information about the real killer.

Sour, macabre, darkly humorous and pickled in booze, these scenes are interspersed with chapters set during the trial when the women of Glasgow turned up in their hordes for a seat in the courtroom to get a look at Manuel's matinee looks.

Throughout, there is a tone that lies somewhere between disbelief and dismay. She has no qualms about laying out straight how rotten, unjust and predatory society was, and is well served by a plethora of real-life side-characters who roamed Glasgow's underworld in those post-war years.

Not unlike Bradford in AA Dhand's recent Streets of Darkness, Glasgow is itself a character with a role to play as far as Mina is concerned. Having moved around a lot while growing up, she is obviously able to assess its potential for sheer menace without the blinkers of undiluted emotional proximity.

The moments where Mina properly administers the liquid nitrogen is when she gives us a front-row seat at not only the execution and immediate aftermath of the Watt murders but also the other poor souls that Manuel happened across on those dark nights.

The calmness of her meter and the elegant crimson language she paints with make for passages that are magnificently terrifying.

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