Real-life murderer Peter Manuel, hanged for his crimes in Scotland in 1958, is a major character in Mina’s novel The Long Drop (Little, Brown, May).
What drew you to writing about Manuel and what challenges did you face, if any, being constrained by fact?
I read a lot of true crime because I’ve always loved the conventions: the teasers (“little did she know she would never see her mum again”), the superabundance of facts, the part where the writer tries to morally justify even repeating this story (usually “to keep others safe”). Being constrained by fact was very freeing actually, especially in this case, because the facts are unbelievable. The danger with true crime is that the writer shoehorns information into the story. The hard thing was leaving research out.
How did you manage to maintain the suspense throughout The Long Drop, given that the reader is certain of Manuel’s guilt—and probable fate—from the outset?
I was blown away by the narrative construction in the movie The Social Network. Tension is created by two time frames that conflict with each other. One chapter ends with great friends, the next begins and they are suing each other. The narrative tension is not because of “what happens” but “how did they get here from there.” It’s a great device and I stole it!
What made you decide to keep the focus away from police and journalists?
The book is about storytelling and how the stories we keep telling about ourselves shape our worldview. We keep telling the serial killer story over and over, the police story and even the killer’s story. In real life they’re often the least interesting aspect. Who are the ghouls who read the papers, like me? Who queues up to get into a trial? For another example, in super-high-profile murder cases it is very common for accused men to frame themselves as detectives. Roman Polanski and O.J. Simpson both did it. They’re trying to look for a role that isn’t a passive victim, as if they can become active heros through force of will.
How did you approach writing about women in this period?
Women’s silence is a roar through the 1950s, and that silence is often incredibly eloquent. Whenever they are glimpsed they contradict the passive, loving, caring roles they’ve been assigned. The newspapers can’t understand the women queuing up to see the brutal trial. Why are women laughing and drinking tea from flasks? They should be home darning socks and weeping.