I have often thought the problem with true crime is the truth; specifically that it portrays the truth as some esoteric thing which requires a kind of apocalypse, an unveiling, to be evident. You may think you know what happened, but the truth is different. Even classics of the genre – Capote’s In Cold Blood, Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, Derf Backderf’s graphic novel My Friend Dahmer – have such a propensity towards revelation. It is in subverting this that Denise Mina’s new “factional novel” The Long Drop is not just a success and a thrilling read in its own right, but a game-changer for the genre. It does for “true crime” what Ruth Scurr did for biography with her similarly ingenious John Aubrey: My Own Life. Both books take the known statements of the subject and stitch them together in a wholly innovative way. What Mina shows is that the “truth” is a chequered thing indeed.
The substance of this story is well known: Peter Manuel, the so-called “first” Scottish serial killer, who was executed in 1958. The chapters alternate between the night of Monday, 2 December, 1957, when Peter Manuel met William Watt, and Manuel’s trial and incarceration between May and July 1958. Watt met Manuel because he supposedly had information about the murders of Watt’s wife, sister-in-law and daughter, for which Watt had initially been the prime suspect. Manuel would be found guilty of those murders.
There is a horrifically balletic quality to the exchanges between the two – both are liars, both are self-aggrandisers, neither is innocent – and these sections are a kind of Walpurgisnacht of booze, boasts and brittle bonhomie, each testing the other’s defences, both found wanting.
The trial scenes are a model of how to make the foregone suspenseful. Mina manages to conjure genuine surprise – as when Manuel elects to mount his own defence – even though it is a matter of the historical record that he did. This in part is done through cleverly focusing on the other players; the lawyers, the witnesses, the judge and most of all those in the thronged public gallery. When Manuel gets his “star turn”, the seeds of his blind egotism have been judiciously sown throughout the account of the one, fateful night.
The Glasgow of the 50s is written evocatively, especially since Mina rather daringly uses the future tense to create the chiaroscuro between past and present, for example: “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 winter”. This might well be a metatextual emblem for the whole book. When you scratch down to the “truth”, it is often splintery and fissiparous. The reek of cigarettes and sweat and sugared bakery swirls off the page: it is almost a scratch’n’sniff book.
Above all, it is a story about telling stories. Everyone is a narrator, everyone is literary critic, assessing and judging the veracity and the honesty of the stories that eddy through the book. Perhaps the most chilling line in the novel is when Watt, exasperated, says, “We just need to hear his story.” In the continuation of the scene, an eavesdropping wife, a frequent cinema-goer, realises “that’s wrong. That is a narrative misstep. If Manuel’s story was in a movie the audience would be jeering now.” The police have to piece together stories, the lawyers have to construct stories, the witnesses have to tell stories, the wrong-doers shore themselves up with a carapace of stories.
Thomas de Quincey’s wonderful essay On Murder Considered As One Of The Fine Arts instigated a series of archetypes that run through popular culture: the murderer as artist, as genius, as the one whose story outfoxes and befuddles the plods. Mina gives this a postmodern turn. When Manuel is eventually in control of the narrative, we realise that he – a failed author, of course – is a bad storyteller as well. He mistakes flamboyance for intrigue, he makes quibbles into conspiracies, he tells, tells, tells and never shows.
The Long Drop neither excuses the ghastly Manuel nor does it soft-soap the police and their ulterior motives, it does not sanctify the victims nor does it shy away from its own gruesome fascination with gruesome fascination. In common with Mina’s oeuvre already, it is not so much about individual crimes as about an underlying criminality in late capitalist society. The despicable and the legal are different entities.
If the book has another blazon of itself, it is the gangster Dandy McKay, whose moniker derives from his being colour-blind and nobody daring to tell him how garish his get-up is. Everyone can see how ludicrous he is except him, and yet nobody will contradict his truth. This is not a book about a psychopath. It is about the psychopathy of reality. Much though I love Mina’s Alex Morrow and Paddy Meehan books, it is in this book – where she is least making things up – that she shows her true creative powers.
*The Long Drop by Denise Mina, Harvill Secker, £12.99