Writer Denise Mina takes on a real Scottish serial killer

by Craig Sisterson / 07 May, 2017
Scottish police search for three members of a family murdered by Peter Manuel. Photo/Getty Images

Scottish police search for three members of a family murdered by Peter Manuel. Photo/Getty Images

Denise Mina has made her name writing crime fiction, but she’s turned her novelist’s eye to the story of Peter Manuel. 

A large, balding man in yellow tweed escapes the soot-covered streets of post-war Glasgow into a neon-lit lounge that’s not fancy, but a “second-best suit, affair-with-your-secretary” kind of place.

Almost comical, he sits across from his opposite: a small, smartly dressed man with dark slicked hair and movie-star good looks. An unlikely pair, but both men share a hunger for more from their lives.

And both have stains on their names. William Watt stands accused of murdering his wife, daughter and sister-in-law in a brutal crime. Peter Manuel is a rapist and thief, recently released. In a few months, one will dangle lifeless from a noose in the city’s Barlinnie prison. But tonight, they drink. And drink. And drink. They go on an 11-hour bender that becomes folklore.

Denise Mina. Photo/Ollie Grove

It’s an intriguing scenario, but unlike many others Denise Mina has crafted for her award-winning crime novels, this one isn’t fictional. Her latest book, The Long Drop, is a literary retelling of the story of one of Britain’s most infamous serial killers, Peter Manuel, and a “reimagining” of the strange night he spent with Watt, drinking and driving all over Glasgow.

“No one really knows what happened that night,” says Mina, when asked what inspired her to write the story. “There’s the official version of the Peter Manuel case, the one in the court transcripts and newspapers, then there’s what people tell each other in Glasgow. I’ve also always wanted to tell a true crime story. I’m a ghoul.”

It appears she’s not alone. There were packed houses at two sessions featuring Mina at Aberdeen’s Granite Noir crime-writing festival the weekend before The Long Drop’s British release. “We are interested in gore,” she says.

“No one wants to read about a stamp collection being stolen. Crime writers often gather and talk about putting the world to rights, being interested in justice and warning people about real-life issues. But can’t we just admit that some of the interest is venial? It could be quite interesting to unpack that.”

Peter Manuel, who was hanged in 1958. Photo/Alamy

In one of her Granite Noir outings, she debated the nature or existence of evil with a former bishop and an Islamic scholar. In the other, she contrasted true crime and crime fiction. “True-crime readers are a very different demographic,” she says. “There is something quite repulsive about being interested in true crime – in some people’s view – but that’s why I like it.”

Writing true crime is also very different from writing crime fiction, Mina found, even if she brought a novelist’s eye and skills to the task. “There was a lot more information and material, but rather than making it easier, I found it a lot more nerve-racking. It was quite tricksy because you don’t know what the reception will be, whether readers will say they just want a made-up story about a gutsy lady who solves crime. But I’d love to write more true crime.”

Switching from fictional to true crime wasn’t the only shift Mina made with The Long Drop. “My book fails the Bechdel test,” she admits, which gauges the prominence of female characters. Beyond the two male protagonists, most of the rest of the cast are male. Women are victims, and in the background. It’s a masculine story in a masculine time. That’s a departure from the strong, complex, female characters that her acclaimed Garnethill, Paddy Meehan and Alex Morrow series focus on.

Isabelle Cooke of Glasgow. Photo/Getty Images

“Women in the 1950s were a viewed thing, they didn’t really have speaking roles in public society,” says Mina. “Manuel’s crimes were against women, but women didn’t have a voice in the investigation or in the court case. There were hundreds of articles, but no female reporters.

“Men were the ones discussing these crimes against women, the ones in the papers and the courtroom giving their opinions about what happened to women. I was reluctant to not have a female at the heart of it, but it just wouldn’t have been realistic for the times.”

Mina brings authenticity to the characters and setting in The Long Drop. The book is an elegantly written page-turner, a thriller that fascinates even if we know how it ends.

It’s not her first go at telling the tale of Manuel and Watt’s strange night together. Her book is a heavily reworked version of her small play, Driving Manuel, from 2013. “We had pensioners come up and accost us after the play and say, ‘The story is more complicated than that,’” she recalls.

For Glaswegians, Manuel is a notorious historical figure. “Everyone involved is dead, but everyone in Glasgow has an opinion on the case and has a story about it relating to themselves, as people do with the JFK assassination.”

In her play, Watt comes across as a complete innocent. In The Long Drop, things are murkier.

Mina lives in Glasgow and was born there, but she didn’t grow up with the Manuel story. He wasn’t a folkloric bogeyman as he was for other Scottish children. That was for two reasons: the family moved around Europe a lot for her father’s work, and they were Catholics. “Manuel was a Catholic, and it brought real shame to the community, who were already looked down on. Because my parents were Catholic, they wouldn’t talk about it. Some Catholics even treated it as a story Protestants made up to make Catholics feel bad.”

It wasn’t until Mina was at law school that she became aware of the notorious killer, who murdered eight people. “There’s a series of cases in Scottish criminal law of idiots dismissing their legal counsel, conducting their own defence and getting longer sentences because of it, and that all started with Manuel, who actually did a good job of the law.”

Unfortunately for Manuel, who was quite intelligent, his attempts to blame Watt and others failed, and he alienated the jury and those in the public gallery with his six-hour summing up and delusions of grandeur.

For Manuel, there was no longer sentence – just a long drop and short stop.

The Long Drop, by Denise Mina (Harvill Secker, $37) is out now

This article was first published in the April 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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