This is a semi-fictionalized account of the crimes of Peter Manuel, a Scottish serial killer who was convicted and hanged for murdering 7 people between 1956 and 1958 in Glasgow. The book’s focus is on Manuel’s relationship with William Watt whose daughter, wife, and sister-in-law were murdered. Watt, whom police suspected for the triple murder, wanted to clear his name and so met with Manuel who claimed he could locate the murder weapon and identify the murderer. The narrative alternates between the 11-hour pub crawl the men took and Manuel’s murder trial 5 1/2 months later.
The author excels at creating atmosphere. Gritty descriptions of Glasgow abound: “Above the roofs every chimney belches black smoke. Rain drags smut down over the city like a mourning mantilla. . . . This story happens in the old boom city, crowded, wild west, chaotic. . . . [The city] dresses like the Irishwomen: head to toe in black, hair covered, eyes down.” And “A train grinds slowly by overhead. The railway tunnels are dark, a piss-tang smell seeps in through the windows. The coal smog is heavy and damp here, it swirls at ankle height. This dank world is peopled with tramps and whores from Glasgow Green and clapped-out street fighters. A burning brazier lights men with fight-flattened noses slumped against a crumbling black wall.” Violence threatens to break out at anytime, anywhere: “It is 1958 and a husband has the legal right to rape and beat his wife. That’s a private matter, a matter for the home.”
Watt and Manuel did in fact spend hours drinking together though no record of their conversation exists. The author speculates about what occurred during this time. The similarities between Manuel and Watt are emphasized. Watt may not be a convicted sex offender and hardened criminal like Manuel, but he is no innocent either. He has his “own contacts in the underworld” and is involved in land-development scams; “In court, Watt is asked about extramarital dalliances and, shamefaced, admits to ‘several lapses’.” Both men lie and both are social climbers desperate for respect; “[Manuel] aspires to be in places that are better than he is” and “Mr. Watt likes power and being near powerful people. He likes respectability and being near respectable people. But most of all he likes being near powerful, respectable people.” Both are ambitious: Watt imagines being the president of the Merchants’ Guild and Manuel dreams of being a published writer.
The author gives Manuel a major flaw: he has no ability to “anticipate what other people will be thinking about or expecting.” Watt tells Manuel, “’You don’t see what other people think. You can’t tell. You can’t see.’” At the trial, he is anxious to demonstrate his cleverness so he delivers a lengthy defense monologue, but “Peter Manuel does not know how other people feel. He has never known that. He can guess. He can read a face and see signs that tell him if someone is frightened or laughing. But there is no reciprocation. He feels no small echo of what his listener is feeling.” 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.”
The book suggests that truth in a court of law is elusive. The winner in a case is the one who spins the best tale. The word story is used about 75 times in the novel. For example, Watt’s famous lawyer, Laurence Dowdall, is described as a “master storyteller”: “Telling stories is his job. He’s a lawyer.” Dowdall sees winning a court case as a matter of telling a good story: “Good storytelling is all about what’s left in, what’s left out and the order in which the facts are presented. Dowdall knows how to shape a narrative, calling witnesses in the right order, emphasizing the favourable through repeated questioning, skim-skim-skimming over the [bad].” On the other hand, Manuel loses because “He doesn’t shape the story, seed the characters earlier and bring them on to behave consistently. New people who have never been mentioned before appear, cause life-changing events and then evaporate. Some characters even have placeholder names: ‘Mr. Brown’, ‘a girl in hospital’. In Manuel’s stories everyone is acting out of character. . . . The jury hate him, not just because he has killed lots of people, but for telling them such a stupid story.” Certainly, the author implies that the truth was not revealed in Samuel’s case; she implies that Glasgow reeked with corruption and that there were others implicated in the Watt family murders.
Occasionally the perspective of minor characters is included. My favourite was that of Brigit, Peter Samuel’s mother, a very pious Catholic. She loves her son but is horrified by his actions. I cheered when she finally speaks truth to her son and “stands up without permission from her husband or the officers or her son.” She also confronts her husband Samuel who lied for Peter and keeps defending him: “She looks at Samuel through her tears and thinks he is an eejit. He’s a lying, f.ing eejit and he is kinky in the s.e.x. department. But she is married to him. So be it. . . . ‘Don’t you touch me ever again.’”
True crime is not my genre, but this book was recommended as a good introduction to the writing of Denise Mina. I did enjoy it enough that I will probably read one of her completely fictional books.