1958, Scotland. In the hallowed halls of Glasgow’s High Court, murder and deceit bleed into the trial of Peter Manuel, the country’s most prolific serial killer. What starts out as an utterly banal series of crimes
(essentially a series of petty thefts and assaults) soon becomes a bloodbath of killings. Manuel eventually murders seven people across Lanarkshire and southern Scotland between 1956 and his arrest in January 1958. Eventually found guilty of eight murders, including three Watt women as well as Anne Kneilands back in December 1956, Manuel
is ultimately hanged at Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison.
Utilizing the city of Glasgow, a city often considered “wild west chaotic,” Mina focuses on Manuel’s friendship with William Watt and Watt’s lawyer, Laurence Dowdall, who knows about Manuel’s rape charges and how he previously defended himself in court. Dowdall is currently defending Watt against allegations that he murdered his own family, including the sex attack on his 17-year-old daughter. Anxious to put “the Burnside murders” behind him, Watt meets Peter Manuel in Jackson’s Bar, a gangster pub with “a specific clientele of suited men.” Manuel has written to Dowdall saying he has information about the murders.
He’s certain that Watt is innocent, and only he knows the identity of the man who really committed the crime.
From here, Mina unfolds a complex portrait of a professional criminal and a serial liar who might never have been caught but for his narcissistic self-confidence. Manuel’s self-assurance
is such that he even volunteers to help with the search for Isabelle Cooke, one
of his later victims. With eight murder charges hanging over Manuel--six which are for the murder of women
and one for a 10-year-old--Dowdall becomes the prominent voice in the tale, and perhaps the only figure who has any real understanding of how profoundly malevolent Peter Manuel truly is.
Unfolding in a quasi-documentary tone, Mina's largely factual account of Manuel’s life and death explores the motivations of the people around him--not just Watt and Dowdall, but also his parents, Brigit and Samuel. Even when they’re laughed at, insulted, and shunned, they continue to provide alibis to protect their son. Other supporting characters move through the tale: Nettie, Watt’s sister-in-law who listens to Manuel in her kitchen and senses Manuel’s guilt with a sober, critical facility; crime-boss Charles Tallis, a man with a long history of housebreaking;
and Shifty Thompson, Scout O’Neill, and Dandy McKay, fellow gang members who reportedly saw Manuel buy guns at the Gordon Club.
Manuel is finally caught over Christmas 1957 when he dodges his police tails and kills the Smarts, a family of three, in their beds. Though he leaves his usual trail of evidence and relies on his family for an alibi, this time he makes a mistake, stealing some easily traceable new banknotes.
Here the novel converges with the recent ITV series In Plain Sight, which focuses more on the efforts of Sergeant William Muncie to finally lock up cocky psycho Manuel for his series of attacks on women. Muncie hates Manuel; he sees him as no more than a filthy criminal who liked to play games with the police. Manuel confesses to Muncie that he broke into the Smarts' house on New Year’s morning, found the family in their beds, and shot the boy. But with no motive or murder weapon, Muncie can’t be sure of convicting Manuel. After a confession involving the whereabouts of Isabelle Cooke, inevitably Manuel
is convicted and executed (one of the last men to be hanged in Barlinnie).
I liked both the ITV series and Mina’s book, but Mina’s story has more complexity and depth, especially regarding Manuel’s trial. Fancying himself as akin
to an American screen idol who can talk his way out on a technicality, Manuel
stupidly mounts his own defense, spending much of his capital finger-pointing and making up lies while telling stories of each of the individual murders. He recalls witness statements word-for-word in an interminable six-hour monologue. The mob, meanwhile, gathers at the court every day of the trial, terrorized by Manuel’s frenzied campaign of violence, the stories of the families whose relatives were murdered in their beds, the blameless teenage girls bludgeoned to death in fields then left lying in the rain and snow.
Like a shadow city, Glasgow is “full of dark and clever men” who climb though suburban windows with guns in their hands. Mina describes this dank, sinister and unsettling world far from the monotonous, curtain-twitching community of suburban Lanarkshire. Manuel cements his fate, pushed beyond his boundaries into
a final moment of reckoning. Mina writes of his downfall with a gritty sense of the insularity of small-town Scottish life, the criminal underworld and misogyny, as well as the crudeness of the police’s investigative methods, especially in the area of forensics.