Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Good News, Bad News
W H S McIntyre (Sandstone Press: £8.99; e-book £3.79)
I am reliably advised that when Willie McIntyre's book signing took place at Waterstones' Princes Street branch, such was the excitement the shop had to extend its opening hours. On this book at least, we can be assured public opinion was spot on! This is the latest instalment of his Best Defence series, which sees defence agent Robbie Munro cross swords while gaining new insights and perspectives of Sheriff Bert Brechin. There lies at the heart of the story a mutual respect between bench and bar, tempered by the necessity to respect their roles and professionally test each other. The sheriff's granddaughter attends the Scotia Law Awards Dinner, anticipating being crowned trainee of the year, when she and her flatmates are arrested. Robbie is a guest at her table and is ultimately instructed to represent her. His options become increasingly narrow, and even the criminal practitioner begins to wonder how matters may resolve. Ellen Fletcher meanwhile has won the lottery, is dying and seeks Robbie's help to reunite her with her estranged husband while involving Robbie in settling his shady business dealings.
Robbie not only must represent the granddaughter's interests but must equally ensure he continues to walk an, at times, perilous tightrope between criminals and the unfortunate, all while trying to put his own house in order by funding and finding a home for himself and his fiancée, who has returned to the “dark side” as a prosecutor. Written with an eye and ear to the reality of a busy criminal practitioner, drawing on years of success, the author has produced a fast paced story, with insightful humour and sharp wit by way of observations on the failure to increase legal aid rates and strict adherence to prosecution policy. The rights have been deservedly bought up, so buy a copy, sit back and enjoy the ride.
The Long Drop
Denise Mina (Harvill Secker: £12.99; e-book £7.99)
In 1958 Peter Manuel, Scotland’s most infamous serial killer, was convicted of, and executed for, the murders of seven people, including the 1957 slaying of the wife, daughter and sister-in-law of Glasgow businessman William Watt. On his death Manuel passed into myth, and his story became part of Glasgow folklore, including the suspicion – persistently smouldering, never quite extinguished – held by some that Watt himself was involved in some way in the killing of his wife and relatives. This belief was only encouraged by the fact that Watt was the initial police suspect in those murders, even spending time on remand in prison before being released without trial. This is fertile ground for any writer, and Denise Mina, one of Scotland’s finest crime fiction authors, skilfully weaves fact and supposition into a startling tale. Her starting point is a real life meeting between Manuel and Watt around the end of 1957, brokered by famous defence solicitor Lawrence Dowdall, a bizarre encounter which, on one view, has never been entirely satisfactorily explained.
Mina follows Manuel and Watt on a night-long pub crawl through Glasgow’s smoky, soot-black underworld, crossing the paths of some almost Runyonesque characters – Dandy McKay, Scout O'Neill, Morris Dickov and his “bridge club” – and intersperses her account of that night with dramatic reconstructions of scenes from Manuel's trial, one of the few which can genuinely be described as sensational. Manuel, of course, dismissed his advocates during proceedings and conducted his own defence, which if anything adds to his legend. In one way we know how his story will end – on the Barlinnie gallows – but Mina convincingly demonstrates why he still haunts Scotland’s imagination. The Long Drop is a terrific read in itself, and for anyone with even a passing interest in Manuel I’d say that it’s irresistible. I devoured it in two or three gulps.
The Pigeon Tunnel
John le Carré (Viking: £20; e-book £9.99)
There may be people who have lived more colourful lives than David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, but they will be a tiny minority. Escaping England, fluent in French and German, to flee the shame of a conman father, all before the age of 20. Spells as schoolmaster and spy, before the runaway success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold turned him into an internationally known author, again at a very early stage. One feels most things came to him earlier than to the rest of us mere mortals.
Le Carré has always resisted efforts to make him pen his autobiography. I suspect that even were he to produce one, it would contain as much obfuscation as many of his novels – though it would undoubtedly be written eloquently. For those wishing to know more about the man I would commend Adam Sisman’s fine biography which was published a couple of years ago: for a briefer insight, reach for this book. It comprises 38 essays, often tales of travels in exotic and dangerous places, which shed light either on the man’s life, or the inspiration for his novels, or both. While I for one have experienced occasional disappointment with the pace of some of le Carré’s later work, I have invariably admired the construction, the spare prose and the subtlety.
Were you a returnee from a far planet, one of the tiny number who are unfamiliar with a single one of the man’s works, I would still commend The Pigeon Tunnel to you. Not a wasted word, not a dull section. It is rare to find a writer who can combine popular fiction with such wonderful literary craftsmanship.