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Book Review: The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a stunning standalone novel which uses as its inspiration the case of one of Scotland’s worst serial killers. I was lucky enough to read the first chapter almost a year ago. Happily, I not only managed to resist googling the real-life people and crimes but didn’t have to wait until today’s publication date to satisfy my whetted appetite when the publisher sent me an early proof copy.

William Watt wants answers about his family’s murder. Peter Manuel has them. But Peter Manuel is a liar.

William Watt is an ordinary businessman, a fool, a social climber.

Peter Manuel is a famous liar, a rapist, a criminal. He claims he can get hold of the gun used to murder Watt’s family.

One December night in 1957, Watt meets Manuel in a Glasgow bar to find out what he knows.

Denise Mina certainly knows how to hook her reader. Her scene-setting is wonderful: in only the fourth paragraph, she shows you what Glasgow had been like, what it will become (the Glasgow most readers who’ve been there will know today) but then spirals you back to how it is at the time of the action about to unfold. So cleverly done. And then she walks two of her characters through this Glasgow, building the atmosphere and tension, until they meet the third and the game can commence. This is how it felt to me. That people were manoeuvring; positioning themselves but you don’t know what the play will be, or who’s on which side, except that everyone may well be only out for themselves.

Some of Denise Mina’s character description appears almost casual, a throwaway phrase, but it’s oh so telling. Very quickly, she sets her scene, fleshes out three fascinating but disparate characters as William Watt is taken by his lawyer, Laurence Dowdall, to meet a man with information about the Burnside Affair (brutal crimes carried out on Watt’s family). A man who was only recently released from prison. A man even Laurence Dowdall, Glasgow’s top criminal lawyer, clearly is wary of and even fears. Peter Manuel.

One person who is in full command of these slippery characters though is Denise Mina: I didn’t so much feel as if I were reading about them, more that they were moving about me in their world, a world in which I was fully immersed. Their Glasgow has been re-awakened within the pages of The Long Drop. It takes the reader along on Watt and Manuel’s pub crawl, a strange nocturnal shuttling about of the city’s bars and clubs and even a tenement kitchen, into crime scenes, the courtroom, a city bus, the prisonDenise Mina put me right there, every time, with her pitch perfect storytelling.

If you’re a writer, The Long Drop is a masterclass in how to fictionalise a real-life historical criminal case. If you’re a reader, The Long Drop is an evocative and chilling game of underworld bagatelle, fuelled by beer and whisky, that’ll take you to dangerous and dark places because of one man’s need for answers and another’s desire, finally, to be heard and seen how he does himself.

The Long Drop by Denise Mina is published by Harvill Secker, a Vintage imprint, and is out today in hardback and as an ebook and audiobook. It is available from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. For more information on Denise Mina and her books, you can visit her Author Website, or find her on Twitter.

My thanks to the publisher for not only letting me read an early extract but sending me a copy for review.

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