JUNE 1, 2017
DENISE MINA’S NEW NOVEL, The Long Drop, is a departure, in many ways, from the three crime series that have solidified her position as one of the most prominent female and feminist voices in contemporary noir. The most immediately striking aspect of the novel, for those familiar with her work featuring strong and struggling contemporary women, is the almost total absence of female characters in the central story. It seems at first as if the author, in wanting to tell a story in the mode of classic 1950s British gangster noir, could only do so if she focused on the men who populate the genre and its offspring, neo-noirs like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. But her aim seems to me to be something other than an imitation of the macho-centric literary form. The Long Drop, whose title prefigures the fate of the man on trial for murder throughout the book, is a critique of the culture that noir so effectively portrays.
The beginning of The Long Drop is classic noir. Two men enter a bar that is “a second-best-suit, affair-with-your-secretary type of place,” to meet a third man, the violent but banal liar at the center of the story, who has just been released from prison. The setting and the initial story are reminiscent in particular of British noir from Graham Greene to Ted Lewis, saturated with finely tuned class distinctions and tribal/religious difference. (In Mina’s Scotland, it matters whether you are Catholic, as is the case with two of the central characters, or Protestant.)
The novel uses the atmosphere and inevitability of noir to capture this cultural setting and the actual events on which the novel is based: the trial of Peter Manuel, a Scottish-American serial killer. She uses the story like one of those coin-operated binoculars at a scenic overlook to focus on the Gorbals, a working-class area of Glasgow that was bulldozed in the name of urban redevelopment soon after the killer in her story was hanged. What she sees in this viewfinder is a world that is ending, or at least at the point of transformation (“The city is reborn so completely that it becomes a memory of a memory of a place”), and a reader can feel Mina’s twinge of regret at the loss. But she also decries not only the ugliness of the area at the time but also its prevalent violence, especially violence against women. Her focus on the fate of Glasgow’s women is one of the most compelling aspects of the book, in its resonance with our own time as well as in her critique of the role of women in the noir genre.
The story focuses at first on two men, William Watt and Peter Manuel. Watt is accused of the murder of his wife, her sister, and his daughter, as well as the rape of the daughter; he is demonized by the press and his standing as a businessman is ruined. But while Watt is despicable in his own right (even if innocent of the crimes), Manuel is a sociopath with numerous previous brutal rapes and murders in his past, if not on his conscience. Without glossing over the many and significant differences between these two men, Mina draws a line of commonality between them, as well as between the pair and the culture that spawned them, and between their story and the literary genre to which that story belongs.
Though Manuel’s violent career is the ostensible subject of the novel, the book’s first half is saturated with another typical, cinematic trope of noir: the protagonists wander from bar to bar on a drunken spree, jolted again and again by fear of another absent man, the most violent gangster in Glasgow, Dandy McKay. In the chapters of the novel that alternate with the murder trial, Peter Manuel is himself terrorized by the threat implied by the fact that Dandy is looking for him. When Dandy finally arrives, along with the violence his name implies to everyone in the city, he is more like a character from a comedy than a gangster movie: “Dandy wears a suit, double-breasted with a broad stripe in blue and pink. He looks like a settee.”
Watt and his lawyer meet Manuel at the novel’s beginning because Manuel sent a letter saying that he knows the location of the murder weapon, a piece of evidence that Watt believes will clear him of the crimes. As they go from bar to bar across Glasgow, Watt and Manuel are linked by the lies they tell each other and by an unspoken secret that binds them together (perhaps the author’s most substantial addition to the court transcripts and contemporary accounts on which her story is based). Mina draws the physical difference between these two central characters with film references from the time of the novel’s action, 1957–’58: “If this were a movie William Watt would be in an Ealing comedy […] Peter Manuel is in a very different film. His would be European black and white, directed by Clouzot or Melville, printed on poor stock and shown in art houses.”
In Mina’s intricate portrayal of the codes and desires of male interpersonal behavior, Watt seems almost to be seducing Manuel, and Manuel is constantly telling stories that seem motivated to impress his companion (just as he will continue to tell stories at the trial). The reason for them being together, the recovery of the murder weapon (and the explanation for Manuel’s knowledge of its location) are constantly deferred as Watt seeks the cash that Manuel demands, first in one of his bakeries and then in the home of his partner and brother.
The first character in the novel who seems to recognize Manuel fully is Watt’s sister-in-law, Nettie, who is horrified by Manuel’s presence in her house — her husband, while also wary of him, is acquiescent to the male rituals of drinking and telling lies. Nettie “feels that she alone knows a murderer is among them,” but she remains constrained by her subservient role. She occupies the moral center of the novel, along with another woman, Manuel’s mother. Like Nettie, and unlike Manuel’s father, she recognizes the truth beneath Manuel’s stories and lies, a truth that resonates beyond her son into the patriarchal culture of masculine solidarity.
Dandy McKay, too, recognizes that something in his own patriarchal enclave is untenable, or at least sees his empire slipping away: as one of Dandy’s employees commands Manuel to be silent about his relation to the gang (otherwise, “[w]e will rape and kill your mother,” a threat described in disgusting detail), Dandy himself thinks that he “is watching this and listening as his world collapses.”
The Long Drop is an indictment of the brutal and masculine world of noir. Mina contrasts this world with her portrait of the role of women in her story and in the culture, a portrait that is in the background of the narrative but at the center of the novel’s impact. She describes the “bride’s scramble,” when the bride throws money for children in the street to scramble for: she “throws money away because she won’t need her own money any more, once she’s married.” When Manuel and Watt arrive in her kitchen, Nettie “sits on the step stool at the table and gives the men the chairs,” and when the men begin their serious discussion, she is banished to the hallway, where she eavesdrops on their conversation. The women of Glasgow are fascinated by the spectacle of the trial, which strangely affirms the rigid gender roles: they are “afraid enough to stay in their homes and do their work and be glad of the menfolk who protect them.” Of one tough guy with a minor role in the story, the narrator says that, “Retired from street fighting now, he beats his wife every night.” And some of the most telling passages in Watt and Manuel’s drunken tour of Glasgow are in a bar — a male preserve where “the bottom and the top can meet and drink and talk, in the absence of women and church” — and another private club renowned for sexual activity that attracts the two men not because of desire but because “they are prisoners of this macho convention and there is no room for either of them to express anything but increasingly intense interest.” But the most ominous aspect of maleness is in the thoughts of the father of one of Manuel’s youngest victims. Immediately upon her disappearance, he sees her fate, because he “knows how men talk about girls. He knows what might have happened to his own Isabelle.”
It is Manuel, though, whose life and legend occupy center stage once the trial begins. He is ordinary, even attractive, in appearance, surprising his courtroom audience: “They expected a dazzling monster, a Dracula, a shaman beast. This man is vulgar and commonplace.” What distinguishes him, and his particular violence against women, is his total egocentricity, his lack of concern for anyone else. Confronted with the lives of two of his victims, they are not “two dead seventeen-year-old girls. To him they are no more than skin-covered stage flats in a play about him.” This man, truly a monster despite his resemblance to us, resonates not only with the many serial killers who came after him, but also with prominent sociopaths who have risen to fame in other ways. He is a storyteller, but his stories are alternative facts: “Manuel only ever tells the same story about himself: Manuel is doing clever things and other people are amazed by him. Manuel is always winning. He is never attacking women.”
Mina’s true-crime novel is chilling in its ordinariness. The dirty, coal-blackened Gorbals is a lost world, the former kingdom of a fallen ganglord as well as a zone of rigid class and gender roles that are brought into focus by Manuel’s crimes and by the author’s vivid portrayal of the trial (based on the court records). That the real story behind the novel so closely follows the outlines of the literary genre of noir (much more than the contemporary genre of the serial killer novel) is a tribute to the truth that we find in noir, but also a critique of the genre’s reliance on those same rigid roles of class and especially gender (a reliance challenged in the neo-noir of today, to be sure). But more than a literary trope, Manuel’s story, in Mina’s hands, overlays those horrors on our own world of ordinary horrors and of a male ego that so fully demands compliance that truth and conscience and empathy are abandoned.