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The Long Drop


The Long Drop

Perhaps you saw last year’s TV miniseries about the OJ Simpson case, which focused on the courtroom drama, and/or the multi-part Oscar-winning documentary, which stressed Simpson’s career and character, and the urban time bomb that was L.A. in the 1990s. Although both films were excellent, the first made the verdict appear a miscarriage of justice; the second made it seem almost inevitable.

Simpson wasn’t accused of a string of murders, like Peter Manuel in Scottish writer Denise Mina’s THE LONG DROP, but in other respects there are parallels between the documentary and this book, inspired by a sensational 1958 trial in Glasgow. Mina is not content to rehearse the headlines of the day; she delves into the twisted psychology that triggered Manuel’s crimes and emphasizes the social context for his trial and execution. The book is less a mystery than a historical novel; it is also a portrait of a serial killer as notorious in the UK as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer in the US.

Mina’s mysteries are consistently terrific, albeit very much on the dark and gritty side, and her writing is crazy good. In THE LONG DROP, her narrative voice is wry, astute and convincingly omniscient. She knows what is going on in Manuel’s mind, and his mother’s. She tells us what the police are thinking, and the lawyers, and the crooks. Most important, she takes in Glasgow itself, which becomes an essential character (as it is in all her books). She places us in the city in the very first pages: “Above the roofs every chimney belches black smoke. Rain drags smut down over the city like a mourning mantilla.” The narrator knows what will happen to Glasgow later --- the flattening of slums, the redevelopment, the depopulation of the center --- but in December 1957 it is still “the old boom city: crowded, wild west, chaotic...commerce unfettered.” Her descriptions recall moody, ambiguous thrillers set in postwar Europe: Graham Greene, John le Carré. There is the same bleakness, the same anarchy, the same smudging of the lines between right and wrong.

"Mina’s mysteries are consistently terrific, albeit very much on the dark and gritty side, and her writing is crazy good. In THE LONG DROP, her narrative voice is wry, astute and convincingly omniscient."

Mina often withholds a lot of information at the beginning of her books, and THE LONG DROP is no exception. It takes a while to realize that businessman William Watt --- at first the police’s prime suspect in the massacre of his family --- is as significant a character as Manuel, who is eventually convicted of those murders. As the novel begins, Manuel and Watt meet one winter night, five months before the arrest and trial, and the narrative alternates between an hour-by-hour description of this pub-crawling encounter and an account of the trial the following May.

The two men are twinned throughout the book. Initially the roles of villain and victim seem obvious. Manuel is a clever psychopath, sexually deviant, grandiose, utterly lacking in empathy. Watt, on the other hand, is merely amoral, alcoholic, philandering, coolly ambitious. He owns a string of bakeries; the shops are clean, but the bread factories are filthy and vermin-infested. He is all façade and false respectability. Gradually, you realize that he, too, is a kind of monster.

Beyond the two protagonists, THE LONG DROP is peopled mostly by crime bosses and petty criminals. The only halfway decent people are Watt’s sensible, hardworking brother and Manuel’s mother, and they aren’t etched clearly enough to have much dramatic counterweight. All of Mina’s previous books, in contrast, have featured a likable if flawed heroine: incest survivor Maureen O’Donnell, journalist Paddy Meehan, police inspector Alex Morrow. There is nobody to root for in this shadowed tale, and that made me realize how much we depend on someone good, or at least well-intentioned, to orient ourselves while reading a mystery. Without this moral compass, we flounder.

But I think Mina’s purpose is less to spin a suspenseful tale than to explore storytelling itself --- the line between fact and fiction, truth and lies (liars and fabulists abound in the cast of characters, especially when they are giving sworn testimony). “Good storytelling is all about what’s left in, what’s left out and the order in which the facts are presented,” she writes, describing how a skillful defense lawyer presents a case. “He has an innate sense of narrative and he is disciplined. [He] can find just the right trajectory to pin his tale to and he can stop before the end. It’s the jury’s job to write the ending.”

Something similar could be said of a novelist, of course, and Peter Manuel himself, it transpires, has written stories and submitted them to well-known magazines. While waiting for the inevitable rejections, he imagines an alternative future version of himself, a life of authorial fame and glory. This is the heart of his delusion, the reason for the fatal decision to fire his lawyers and address the court directly: “For the first time in his life he feels heard.”

But he is wrong about how his rendition of the facts will be received: “[He] thinks the jury are as entranced by him as he is by himself. He doesn’t feel what other people are feeling. Other people are feeling insulted and bored and revolted.... After six hours...everyone in the court wants him dead.” And dead he is, soon enough. (The title “The Long Drop” refers to a technique used in hanging, for Manuel’s execution was one of the last in Scotland before capital punishment was abolished in 1965.)

This book is a hybrid, neither true crime nor pure thriller, that mixes the factual and the speculative. It takes guts to strike out in a new direction. Yet in doing so, Mina also deprives us of some of the pleasures of the mystery genre --- particularly the vivid personalities of the sleuths, amateur or professional, who have peopled her novels until now.

THE LONG DROP is brilliant. But I can’t help hoping that next time, Mina returns to her fictional beat.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on May 26, 2017

The Long Drop
by Denise Mina