Winner of the 2017 McIlvanney Prize
According to the actor who played Peter Manuel, aka “the beast of Birkenshaw”, at a recent Edinburgh Book Festival event, his subject scored 40 when measured on the scale for psychopathy. (Top score is 40.) So what was William Watt, the man who had been wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife, daughter and sister-in-law, meeting him in a restaurant before going on an eleven-hour drinking session through the pubs and clubs of a grimy, wintery late-1950’s Glasgow?
Watt was desperate to clear his name and he had heard that Manuel had information which would lead to the true culprit. Information available for a price. As the night progresses, with the men getting steadily more inebriated, events unfold involving loose tongues, Glaswegian gangsters and shocking revelations that point to Watt having connections and dealings that a squeaky-clean businessman should not have.
Alternating with the late-night, early-morning bender are chapters covering Peter Manuel’s trial, the progress and outcome of which is a matter of historical record. After disastrously sacking his counsel and taking over his own defence, Manuel was sentenced to death, not only for the murder of Watt’s family but for 5 more, and yet these pages are as tense as any contemporary legal thriller. How does Mina manage this? Through pending questions. Would Manuel, undoubtedly guilty but also a fall guy, stay schtum? What pressure was being brought to bear to ensure that he did?
The relationship between Manuel and his devoutly Catholic mother is, as you would expect, complex, and there is a feeling that his aggressive questioning of her at the trial is the moment where any hope is lost. Called as a defence witness, her refusal to compromise her integrity, led to the complete loss of his. Once it is proven without doubt that you are lying, why believe another word that comes from your mouth? Who could believe that confirmation names could be so pivotal?
Similarly powerful is the scene where Watts takes Manuel to his brother’s for a sobering-up breakfast of bacon and eggs. By this time Manuel is garrulous, and divulges details of the killings in Watt’s home that he could only have known had he been there. His at times sensual lingering over material details is a skin-crawling insight into the anomaly of the psychopathic mind. The sister-in-law, a fan of noir films, listening behind the door, spots the missteps in his narrative and clocks him for what he is.
She also realises that there is something not quite right about Watt’s story, and later Mina makes it clear that he was in some way complicit in the murder of his family. The reason why she believes something that is not part of the official narrative is a story in itself, but the inclusion of these suspicions in her novel make it even more compulsive.
This is such a grimy, gritty and dark tale that I won’t admit to loving it. But completing it in two or three sittings tells you that I did. I also really appreciated the (unofficial) unmasking of Peter Manuel by two women, representatives of the sex he spent his adulthood abusing, violating, murdering. Both legal and poetic justice have been served. *****