An Interview with Denise Mina

The Long Drop is a true crime novel which recounts the story of Peter Manuel, a serial killer operating in 1950’s Glasgow, who broke into a suburban villa in September 1956 and murdered three women in their beds. Questioning the official account of the murders, Denise Mina’s first foray into true crime is an unsettling and evocative recreation of Glasgow in a bygone age.

Could you explain why you chose to take on this difficult story of Peter Manuel again?

I wrote a play about this story before. When I did, I found a line in a true crime book which said that the murderer had met the father of three of the victims for a drink, and that they had drank for twelve hours. It may only have been a throwaway line but I was interested in it. In the play, I wrote the father as a completely innocent person, who was meeting a very bad man. After the play had been performed, I was stopped by several Glasgow pensioners who kept telling me that I’d told the story badly – and the story that they told me was much better. In fact, it was a story maintained by the children of one of the victims: a lot more people were involved than had ever come out in the trial. It spoke so much of Glasgow as it was then: of networks of power; of who knew who; of smoky rooms in gentlemen’s clubs.

What made you want to take up the challenge of writing a true crime novel?

I’ve always loved true crime, because it’s regarded as a low art form. Readers approach it with a certain set of expectations: they expect to be entertained and a little bit disgusted. I think the high art and low art distinction is so nebulous and so fluid. I write comics as well: when I started, they were regarded as an aid for people who could not read properly. By the time I’d finished, they were regarded as a high art form that lots of people didn’t really understand. I also like the conventions of the form: true crime books are filled with teasers, such as “little did she know, it was the last time that she would see that handbag”. I also loved Gordon Burn’s writing: I love the way he mashed very good writing with true crime.

You have a mix of real life and fictional characters, like Billy Fullerton and Dandy McKay. How did you go about reconstructing those voices?

Actually, a lot of it has been documented: the rhythm and syntax are documented in the court case. Most of the court case scenes are verbatim. If you spend a lot of time in the national archives, reading the transcripts of the trials, you can get a sense of their voice. Ultimately, you have to make the story work: it is a fiction and a reimagining. It can be hard to reproduce speech when people take a lot of drugs: they remove all the nouns from their sentences, or just trail off, so you have to work to make it comprehensible.

You write the book in a very matter-of-fact style: the physical movements of characters and each turn in the court-room dialogue are captured in great detail and in the present tense. Why did you do that?

I was playing with tense a lot. I’d read Mantel and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. I like the immediacy that the present tense brings. One of the problems with true crime is that you know how it ends, so you need that immediacy: it gives you a sense of peril. There’s also a very authorial voice in true crime, where the writer intervenes very starkly with remarks like, “she would never see her home again”. It makes you aware that you’re being told a story; it’s an unsettling technique. There’s also the fact that the Glasgow depicted in the book no longer exists: it’s a completely different place now. If you’re going to transport the reader back in time, you need to compensate by giving the text immediacy.

The relationship to Glasgow is critical to the book and to your readership. I’m told a lot of crime fiction is read in Scotland: what attracts people to the genre?

They like it because they have a sense of empowerment. Nobody reads crime fiction because they should. They might buy it because they feel they should. I got the job of rewriting the Millennium trilogy as graphic novels: a lot of people told me at signings that they bought them and didn’t read them. But they don’t read it because they feel they should: people trawl through literary fiction for that reason. The other reason is that a lot of crime fiction is the same story told over and over again: a basic ‘restoration of order story’. In crazy times, that is very affirming.

The genesis of this novel came out of a previous reworking of the same story; obviously you felt some compulsion to revisit it, at least in part because of the local fascination with these killings and this period. What is the relationship between your novel and the way people see the period?

I think I’m challenging the depiction. Until recently, the image of this period in Glasgow’s history was very male and very macho. Now, Glasgow has been the first European city to be regenerated through the arts; partly as a consequence, we look back at that time as glorious. Actually, it was a lot of things, but glorious it was not. People complain nowadays that the high-flats are coming down; they say “it was so much better before”. That’s because they don’t remember the housing: it was horrific. Nobody had bathrooms! If you had eleven children and lived in one room, it wasn’t glorious…

I like to think of the novel challenging various other narratives. Obviously, it challenges the official narrative of the court case, which makes no sense. I’m also challenging the serial killer narrative: the idea of single individuals carrying out murders, who can simply be cut out of society, is a ‘melanoma’ attitude towards criminality. It’s very comforting. But what’s more interesting about serial is the behaviour of people around them. I’m interested in crime not as a single action, but crime as a social system.

Although the work is a fiction, it challenges our ideas about the reality. And the idea of presenting a fiction that makes more sense than reality is very interesting.

Josh Kimblin writes for Varsity and is studying History at Christ’s College Cambridge.

The winner of the Gordon Burn Prize will be announced at Durham Book Festival on Thursday, 12 October.