The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Grimly Glaswegian…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

William Watt wants to clear his name. His wife, sister-in-law and daughter have been brutally murdered in their home, and Watt is the chief suspect. But convicted rapist and burglar, Peter Manuel, recently released from prison, claims he knows who did the murders and can lead Watt to the murder weapon, a gun which has passed from hand to hand through the criminal underworld of Glasgow. So one December evening in 1957 the two men meet and spend a long night together drinking and trying to come to some kind of deal – a night during which the truth of the killings will be revealed.

This book is based on the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland, in the late 1950s. A notorious rapist and brutal murderer, Manuel was a bogeyman in the Glasgow of my childhood, though he died before I was born. Adults spoke of him in hushed tones or sometimes threatened disobedient children that Peter Manuel would get them if they didn’t behave. In the old tradition, his story was turned into a rhyme that little girls sang while skipping ropes…

Mary had a little cat
She used to call it Daniel
Then she found it killed six mice
And now she calls it Manuel.

Despite this, I knew almost nothing about the actual crimes of which Manuel was convicted, so came to the book with no preconceptions, and made a heroic effort to avoid googling in advance. And although the blurb already seems to suggest what the outcome of the Watt case might be, it’s not nearly as clear cut as that – Mina does a wonderful job of obscuring and blurring the truth, so that I spent the whole time not quite sure how major parts of it would play out, and immediately had to rush off on finishing to find out how closely the story she tells had stuck to the facts. The answer is that she largely has, but has taken a few fictional liberties. These are just enough to mean the suspense element will work just as much for people who know the case as those who don’t, I think.

Above the roofs every chimney belches black smoke. Rain drags smut down over the city like a mourning mantilla. Soon a Clean Air Act will outlaw coal-burning in town. Five square miles of the Victorian city will be ruled unfit for human habitation and torn down, redeveloped in concrete and glass and steel…Later, the black bedraggled survivors of this architectural cull will be sandblasted, their hard skin scoured off to reveal glittering yellow and burgundy sandstone. The exposed stone is porous though, it sucks in rain and splits when it freezes in the winter.

But this story is before all of that. This story happens in the old boom city, crowded, wild west, chaotic. This city is commerce unfettered. It centres around the docks and the river, and it is all function. It dresses like the Irishwomen: head to toe in black, hair covered, eyes down.

Peter Manuel

But the story is only a part of what makes this wonderful book so special. Despite being in my pet-hate present tense, the writing is fantastic. The portrayal of Glasgow feels amazingly authentic – the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty; the buildings blackened by the soot of the industrial revolution before the big clean up that happened later in the century; the lifestyles of respectable people and criminals alike; the gangsters great and small; the perpetual almost tribal sectarianism between Protestant and Catholic that has marred so much of the city’s history; the relationships between married couples; the pubs as a male preserve; the edge of danger that comes from the ever present threat of violence – everything! It reminded me strongly of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw books – less poetic perhaps, or at least less affectionately so. McIlvanney doesn’t beautify the city or hide its darkness, but nevertheless his books read like a love letter to it and its people – Mina’s depiction is harsher, colder perhaps, but still balanced and nuanced.

And sometimes the book is gut-wrenching in its emotional truth and power. The man giving evidence about the murder of his daughter when we are made privy to his thoughts behind the spoken evidence. The sudden use of war metaphors when a man who had served in WW2 comes across a scene of bloody brutality. It drew tears from me more than once, for the fierceness of its truthfulness and the power of the prose as much as for the tragedies in the story. And there are other passages where a different, gentler kind of truthfulness emerges – the mother torn between her love for her child and what she sees as her duty to God; the children left to run free in the streets in a way that would be almost unthinkable now.

They search the car. In the glovebox they find a tin of travel sweets. The lid lifts off with a white puff of magician’s smoke. Inside, translucent pink boiled sweeties are sunk into a nest of icing sugar. These are posh sweets.

Reverently, the boys take one each. They savour the flavour and this moment, when they are in a car, eating sweets with friends. In the future, when they are grown, they will all own cars because ordinary people will own cars in the future but this seems fantastical to them now. In the future they will think they remember this moment because of what happened next, how significant it was that they found Mr Smart’s car, but that’s not what will stay with them. A door has been opened in their experience, the sensation of being in a car with friends, the special nature of being in a car; a distinct space, the possibility of travel, with sweets. Because of this moment one of them will forever experience a boyish lift to his mood when he is in a car with his pals. Another will go on to rebuild classic cars as a hobby. The third boy will spend the rest of his life fraudulently claiming he stole his first car when he was eight, and was somehow implicated in the Smart family murders. He will die young, of the drink, believing that to be true.

Denise Mina

The book has been longlisted for this year’s McIlvanney Prize and, though I’ve only read a few of the other contenders, I can’t imagine how any book could be a more suitable winner. Scottish to its bones, it nevertheless speaks to our universal humanity. Crime fiction where the quality of the writing and insight into a particular time and place would allow it to sit just as easily on the literary fiction shelf. Not only do I think this is one of the books of the year but I suspect and hope it will become a classic that continues to be read for many decades to come, like Capote’s In Cold Blood or McIlvanney’s own Laidlaw. I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it…

It was Cleo’s great review that tempted me to read this wonderful book – thanks again, Cleo! I owe you one!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 5 of 20

48 thoughts on “The Long Drop by Denise Mina

  1. God, I’ll have to read it, won’t I? I’d been resisting heroically so far, because I have so much else to read and I’m not a huge fan of true crime etc. etc. But I love Denise Mina anyway and you are pushing all the right buttons!

    • Yes, you must! It actually reads more like fiction than true crime – I ended up tagging it as both. Although it’s based on the facts, she’s made a few changes and speculated a bit – just enough to make it read like a novel without taking away from the realism. As you’ll have gathered, I think it’s not to be missed… 😀

  2. Yes, you’ve persuaded me. There is nothing like reading a story set in a location and amongst people you are familiar with. Amazing to read a story where you are familiar with the facts too, and that skipping rhyme! ***cold shiver down my back.

    • I never thought of what these skipping rhymes were based on when I was a kid, but lots of them apparently come from pretty horrible stories – odd, really! If you do go for this one, I’ll be intrigued to hear if it works as well for someone who’s not familiar with the setting and so on… 🙂

  3. I think I am in love with this book. I love true crime and the excerpts here are just some of the finest prose ever. Damn it, FF, over the last two weeks my TBR has exploded and it’s all your fault!!

    • Isn’t the writing wonderful? I love that quote about the three boys – a little life history of each in just a few words, but they immediately become real people. Haha! I’m sorta sorry, but truthfully I’m not – you’ll be glad you went for them… *crosses fingers*

      • I could just see those three boys and almost their whole lives in just those few lines. Absolutely brilliant writing *makes notes*
        I’m reading the ‘locked rooms’ mystery one at the moment as my ‘on the train’ book and am really enjoying it. It’s a little bit hit and miss, but I do love that era of writing and it’s just delightful. I trust your recommendations implicitly, FF!

        • It’s really left me wanting to read more of her stuff – she has a reputation for being a bit grim, but I could put up with that if she writes as well as she did here.

          Yes, they’re always a bit variable but I’m finding them increasingly addictive! I think partly the fun is Martin Edwards’ little intros – they always give just enough info to be interesting without overload. Hahaha! I don’t think you should do that… 😉

  4. Mina is such a talented writer, isn’t she, FictionFan? And it sounds as though this one is no exception. I really do like the way she sets context and atmosphere in general, and that seems to be important here, too. So glad to hear this one lived up to expectations, and it wouldn’t surprise me, either, if it’s the winner.

    • Oddly enough, I think this is only the second book of hers I’ve read – must rectify that! This one is exceptional, I think, because it’s based on a case that’s so much a part of Glasgow’s history from the time of the real gangs and violence, and has kind of passed into the mythology and psyche of the city. I have my fingers crossed that it wins… 😀

  5. Well, you’ve convinced me…this sounds fantastic and I’m not going to read the synopsis or google the case either:) Great review…I’ve been so curious to hear what you thought of this one!

    • I’ll be intrigued to hear what you think of it – I never know with these books how much I’m influenced by knowing the setting. But Cleo loved it too, and she doesn’t know Glasgow well, if at all. The writing is fantastic – I hope you enjoy it! 😀

    • Good – that was my nefarious plan! 😉 Seriously, though, it’s one of the best written crime novels I’ve read in a long time – deserves to become a classic.

    • Oh, yes, I can see why this wouldn’t be the time for a book like this! I didn’t realise it was those kinds of cases you were on – poor you! Definitely time for reading something a bit more uplifting, then… plus cake… 😀

  6. I’m so glad I inspired you to read this one, and that you enjoyed it so much! I thought the atmosphere Denise Mina created was superb and although I don’t know the area (apart from what I’ve seen on TV) I had no trouble at all in believing every word that was written – Reading this book has inspired me to pick up others in a similar vein, including finally, In Cold Blood and I have to say like you this does deserve a place on the literary fiction shelf and of course the McIlvanney Prize!

    • I’m glad you did too – a brilliant book! Yes, it’s very much in the tartan noir tradition but more realistic because it’s based on a true story. Glasgow was changing by the time I was growing up, but I still remember – just – all those blackened buildings and the smoke from coal fires and factories hanging over it. And I’ve even drunk in some of the pubs she mentions. And I remember the fear that used to be such a feature of the city when the big gangs still ruled the roost. I must read In Cold Blood!

  7. I haven’t heard of this one, but you’ve made a convincing case that I should read it. Drat, my TBR is already pudgy enough. If only I could find a way to squeeze another three or four hours into a day!!

    • Ha! I know the feeling only too well! But this is one that’s well worth finding a little space for – not just for the story, but because the writing is so good. If you do ever get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it. 😀

    • I didn’t see it, but I really must try to get hold of it. This is kinda terrifying, but more because you know it’s based on real events than because it’s any more gruesome or graphic than most noir fiction. If you ever get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it – the quality of the writing lifts it head and shoulders above most crime, true or fictional.

  8. You had me at Manuel, the great bogey of my childhood. When the crimes, and later the trial, were being reported, Mum used to censor the newspapers because she thought it was too horrific for me to read!

    • I bet she did! She was still kinda weird about Manuel even when I was a kid, a few years after he’d been hanged. The case must have affected her a lot, I think. And some of this book takes place around bits of the city you’ll probably have memories of – out towards where we used to live.

      • Yes, I think that’s why Mum was so freaked. Also, it was the first case in Scotland where the sexual elements were reported in any but the most euphemistic way. I remember Dad going to meet a neighbour’s daughters from work because their dad couldn’t, and they were frightened to walk home on their own (they only worked round the corner).

        • I was looking for images for the post and there are lots of pictures of the newspaper headlines – lurid is the word that springs to mind! No wonder people were terrified.

  9. Oohh this one sounds like a juicy read, especially because it’s based on a real life crime where the criminal is so terrifying looking! Yikes, gives me the creeps just looking at it. You’ve been reading a lot of based in true-life crime lately haven’t you?

    • He definitely looks a bit unhinged, and the adults around me when I was growing up really thought of him as the embodiment of evil. He’s kinda become part of the mythology of the city and that time, when there were real gangs and huge amounts of violence, is still what a lot of people think of when they think of Glasgow. We’re much nicer now, though! Yes, you’re right, though I hadn’t realised it. Another one tomorrow, in fact…

        • Was he the one that fed his victims to the pigs or something horrific like that? That’s the only Canadian one I know about, and it was the pig motif that made it stand out. We’ve had a few really vicious killers over the years in Scotland but somehow Peter Manuel seems to be the one that caught the public imagination as a real monster.

          • Ah no, you are thinking of Robert Pickton. And he fed his victims to pigs after killing them yes, it was mainly hookers that he murdered. No, Paul basically raped and killed a few women but did it with his wife at the time, and they videotaped it, one of the victims was a high school girl so it was quite horrific. His house was bulldozed because people couldn’t stand to look at it.

            • Oh, that does sound horrible. Somehow it’s always worse when more than one person is involved, and sexist it may be, but even worse when one of them is a woman. Over here, you may have heard of Myra Hindley who murdered children with her partner Ian Brady. Although he was the driving force, she was the one everyone hated most – it seemed so hideous that a woman should be involved in killing children.

            • Oh god that sounds terrible. Speaking of mothers killing children, I just read little deaths which is all about that, based on a real life person apparently

            • Did you like it? I’ve seen a couple of reviews and thought about geting it, but you know the state my TBR’s in! Can always find room for an extra one though, if it’s really good…

    • Hahaha! But I keep veering off the list and I’ve abandoned four of them so far! I’m currently reading books 11, 12 and 13 – almost zero chance of me finishing the reading by the deadline, and definitely zero chance of them all being reviewed in time!

      • Ohhhh, you don’t count a book if you’ve gone off the list, then? I go if the list occasionally. I use the list to guide my reading and keep up a pace that is reasonable for me during summer: 20 books. That’s how I use the challenge, though maybe that’s not how Cathy intended it!

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