Mina’s The Long Drop (Scotland), Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead (UK/USA), le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel (UK/world)

This ‘read exactly what you want to read’ thing is working out really well. Three crackers for you this week:

Denise Mina, The Long Drop (Harvill Secker, 2017)

First linesHe knows too much to be an honest man but says he wants to help. He says he can get the gun for them.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by the supremely talented Scottish writer Denise Mina, and The Long Drop is no exception. Based on the true case of rapist and murderer Peter Manuel, it’s a highly original re-telling of the circumstances leading up to his trial and judicial reckoning, set in a grimy, rough 1950s Glasgow.

Often these kinds of literary/true crime hybrids will focus on ‘why and how’ a criminal came to carry out his or her crimes (see for example my recent review of Carrère’s The Adversary). Such approaches are often fascinating, but what makes The Long Drop stand out is the originality of its storytelling, which expertly weaves together two contrasting narrative strands. The first shows a long night of drinking by Manuel and businessman William Watt in various Glasgow bars and establishments. Watt is the husband, father and brother-in-law of three of Manuel’s murder victims, and meets Manuel in the hope of gaining a crucial piece of evidence. It’s a cat-and-mouse game with some genuine surprises, which also takes us on a tour of the ‘old’ Glasgow before the slum clearances and remaking of the city centre (you can trace their wanderings on the map on the inside cover). The second narrative strand explores Manuel’s trial and the public/media interest in the case. It’s equally fascinating, not least due to Manuel’s misguided decision to dispense with his legal representation and do the job himself.

I found the entire book unexpectedly gripping, and the quality of the writing and characterisation are sublime. Mina doesn’t shy away from describing Manuel’s horrific crimes, but her approach is never salacious, and she provides razor-sharp dissections of masculinity and class along the way. Highly recommended.

You can read an extract from the beginning of The Long Drop over at DeadGoodBooks.

Steph Broadribb, Deep Down Dead (Orenda Books, 2017)

First line: I open my eyes and the first things I see are the cuffs.

I’ve never been much good at dealing with Mild Peril. Even watching kids’ films like Finding Nemo, in which a small fish lurches from one mildly threatening situation to another, required the steadying hand of my small son. For that reason, I don’t tend to read thrillers packed with Major Peril. Every now and then, however, I’ll be tempted to throw caution to the wind, as was the case with Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead. I’d heard Steph read an extract from the novel at Newcastle Noir, and liked the sound of her sassy heroine, Florida bounty hunter Lori Anderson, very much.

Deep Down Dead is a genuinely accomplished debut novel. Steph is a UK author, but convincingly pulls off a Stateside setting and dialogue, and famously shadowed a real bounty hunter as part of her research, in order to learn the trade first-hand. I love the character of Lori, a thirty-something single mother, whose need to pay off her nine-year-old daughter’s medical bills leads her to take the job of collecting a wanted man in West Virginia. Except the man turns out to be J.T., her old flame and mentor, and the lack of a babysitter means she has to take daughter Dakota along – into a less than child-friendly environment. Trouble quickly ensues. The dialogue is snappy, the action high-octane, and Lori’s dual identity as bounty hunter and parent makes her the ultimate multi-tasking mom – and a very likeable one at that. A wonderfully entertaining summer read.

John  le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. Stories from my Life (Viking, 2016)

First lineThere is scarcely a book of mine that didn’t have The Pigeon Tunnel at some time or another as its working title.

I count myself as one of John le Carré’s biggest fans (see my appreciation here), so reading his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel was a treat of the highest order. The author has a reputation for being a brilliant raconteur, and the reading the book’s 38 chapters felt a bit like being at a dinner where the great man is holding court.

There are fascinating takes on key moments of Cold War history (West German Chancellor Adenauer’s failure to remove former high-ranking Nazis from post-war political structures; Russia before and after the collapse of Communism), wonderful anecdotes about actors and directors (Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Sydney Pollack, Stanley Kubrick), stories about the people who inspired his characters (such as Yvette Pierpaoli, who became Tess in The Constant Gardener), and the extensive research trips for novels such as The Little Drummer Girl (resulting in a dance with Yasser Arafat). And of course, there are insights into the complex, murky world of spying, and in particular the Kim Philby case – the British intelligence officer who was unmasked as a Russian spy in 1963. The stories are by turns illuminating, moving and hilarious – I found myself laughing out loud a great deal, which wasn’t something I’d expected at all. If you’re a fan of le Carré, the memoirs really are a must-read.

I’m now keen to re-read some of le Carré’s novels, and to tuck into Adam Sisman’s biography of the author, which is waiting patiently for me on a shelf.

You can read an extract from The Pigeon Tunnel here, involving Alec Guinness, former Chief of the Secret Service Maurice Oldfield, and some authorial guilt. Other extracts are available from The Guardian here, both from The Pigeon Tunnel and the author’s novels (beautifully read by a cast of famous actors).

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28 thoughts on “Mina’s The Long Drop (Scotland), Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead (UK/USA), le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel (UK/world)

    • You’re quite right, Margot! Very difficult to go wrong with such excellent authors. I still have some of Denise Mina’s earlier novels to read, which I’m looking forward to very much, and I could re-read le Carre until the cows come home…

  1. I’ve been listening to The Pigeon Tunnel, which for me, is clearly a mistake. I find I can’t capture the acuity of his observations, nor can I catch the nuances. This is a memoir that I want to read, line by line, grabbing everything. It’s purely fascinating stuff. Can’t wait to get a print copy. Also, can’t wait to read A Small Town in Germany and The Little Drummer Girl.

    • Hello Judith! I totally get what you’re saying. I’ve found myself going back over certain bits of The Pigeon Tunnel already, and am going to hold on to the book rather than passing it on. Definitely one to be lingered over and savoured! I hope you enjoy the two novels – they are very different to one another (by virtue of being from two very different phases of his writing career), so it will be interesting to see what you think. I suspect I’ll be going back to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the first instance…

  2. I have not read The Long Drop by Denise Mina — yet. I have read and liked every novel she wrote, except Deception. Many of them are excellent. I wish she’d return to Alex Morrow’s investigations.
    The thriller sounds good for a summer read. Snappy dialogue, light story, all good for the summer.
    And Le Carre! What shall I do? I haven’t read any of his books, although my father was a fan. And I liked the film of The Constant Gardener and the TV episodes of The Night Manager, which had an incredible cast, too.
    I’d like to start with reading The Constant Gardener or else reading The Pigeon Tunnel. It sounds delightful. I wish my father could have read that book. But I may do it — so the novel or the memoir? I feel like blowing on those flowers we used to blow on when we were kids to make this decision. The humor of his stories is a big draw.

    • Hello kathyd! Thanks for your comment.

      As for the le Carre – it’s a tricky decision. I’d probably start with The Constant Gardener and then move on to The Pigeon Tunnel. le Carre talks a quite extensively about the processes of researching and writing, and it would probably be good to have read one of his books before the memoirs, to get a feel for his style. The memoirs do contain the odd spoiler as well. But that having been said, I could well imagine a reader starting off with the memoirs and being inspired to go off and read the novels…

      If you’re looking for a ‘classic’ le Carre to read, I’d recommend Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I can never quite manage to pick a favourite, but this one would certainly be in my top 5.

  3. Hmm, well, I saw The Constant Gardener movie and I read about the real incident that sparked Le Carre to write the novel about it.
    Whatever I can get from the library, I’ll try. No cost, no loss.
    Did you enjoy The Night Manager? Thomas Hiddleston terrible, Hugh Laurie – the best nuanced villain, and
    Olivia Coleman, smart, capable, lovable, several months pregnant. Love her.
    Was so angry when the U.S. staged Broad Church with David Tennant and the producers and directors disregarded
    Coleman and put in a U.S. blonde actress. Anna Gunn was good, but she wasn’t Coleman.
    She tells that chairs had to be put in every scene for her, and that when her pregnancy advanced and she “waddled,”
    she was told to “stop the pregnancy walk!” Hilarious. How does one do that?
    I’ll watch her in anything.
    So this summer I will read a Le Carre plus about 20 other books I’m promising to read. Can I just give up
    everything else, no bills paid, no dishes washed, no groceries purchased, no cleaning, no laundry. Just
    get lots of iced tea, frozen yogurt, chocolate and a ton of books by a lake. Can I arrange that in Manhattan?
    Best wishes on your summer reading.

    • I like the idea of just going with whatever the library can offer you – fate can decide!

      I did enjoy The Night Manager adaptation, though I preferred the novel’s ending to the one in the series…. Yes, absolutely agree that Hugh Laurie was a fabulous and very plausible baddie, and as for Coleman, like you, I’ll watch anything she’s in. One of my very favourite actresses.

      Your vision of summer reading is idyllic. I’ll join you by that lake if I may? Wherever it happens to be… 🙂

  4. So there’s another £5 you cost me, as I had to buy a copy of Le Carré’s book! The sample with the Alec Guiness story sold me.

  5. Mrs. P — I enjoyed your comments on the Pigeon Tunnel and found it fascinating myself. Le Carré’s description of the filming of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was entertaining, with the Richard Burton – Elizabeth Taylor melodrama playing out on the edges of the set. Burton and Taylor were certainly two epic (and somewhat tragic) characters. I agree with your comment about Le Carré’s insightful treatment of Cold War history in West Germany, and his anecdotes show a bit of the political struggle for the soul of that country which took place in a somewhat understated way in those years. For those of us in the States as well as many other places, the daily news provides an object lesson in the importance of those battles. . . I also have to mention Le Carré’s description of his complicated family dynamics, which cannot have been easy to write, but which he handled with sensitivity and I think honesty.

    Robie

    • Thanks, Robie. Yes, lots of food for thought in relation to the political landscape today. And I’m really glad you brought up the chapters on le Carre’s complex childhood and family dynamics – they make for quite remarkable reading.

  6. I am so much with you on the Mild Peril, Mrs P. I still sometimes have to cover my eyes when watching crime dramas on the TV. I also love Kathy’s idea: so much reading time is wasted in shopping, cooking meals and so on.
    I must put The Pigeon Tunnel on the TBR list.

  7. I don’t know how the novel ended of The Night Manager since I didn’t read it.
    I haven’t had time to read much lately, but watched the third season of Line of Duty. That was so good! The cast was
    amazing, and Keeley Dawes came back. She was incredible. Watched a feature which showed her talking about
    her character, whom she said was entirely unpredictable every minute. But what an acting job!
    So well-done though.
    Also, have been reading about the terrible Grenfell Tower disaster, the loosening of fire safety laws, the cost-cutting
    over human lives, etc. I gather many people are suspicious of a cover-up of the true number of fatalities. Not
    surprising. And for $6,377 saved on the cladding!
    Read a lot of comments by Labour MPs that were quite good and honest.
    Hope this shakes things up for the survivors and also other social housing residents who deserve a lot better.

    • I absolutely loved Keeley Hawes in Line of Duty. Another actress that I’ll watch in just about anything…

      The Grenfell fire is an absolute tragedy, not least, as you point out, because it could have been avoided with just a tiny amount of extra outlay. This is a story that will run and run, as more of the details about the decision-making processes come out. It’s possible that charges of corporate manslaughter could be brought against those responsible. I think the fire has also served as a wake-up call about the human cost of wide-spread government cuts to local council and public services funding. Lots of other tower blocks have now been found to have the same cladding, so this is definitely not a one-off case.

  8. I hope those responsible are held criminally responsible. At least 79 people, including children, died. And many people suspect a lot more perished.
    To save money, and a small amount at that, and to people at such risk is criminal.
    The New York Times ran a 2 1/3 page story on this on Sunday. The theme was cost-cutting vs. human life. It said that pro-business politicians decided that cost-cutting was worth the risk of using flammable building materials! Wow!
    And I believe the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council had a surplus of funds.
    This story won’t end.

  9. I’ve not read Denise Mina but I have her trilogy – Garnethill. I think I’ll start there to see how I like her. Those books were recommended years ago.

  10. Too long ago to mention I studied in Glasgow for 3 years and loved my time there. It wasn’t too long afterwards I first read Denise Mina. I didn’t realise the Garnethill Trilogy was a trilogy and read them in the wrong order! I still enjoyed them enough to read everything she’s written since then (except her latest). I reread the Trilogy recently (in the right order) and was still impressed by it. Her style and subject matter has changed, perhaps softened, over the years – the Trilogy is a ‘raw’ read- but she’s still a must-read for me.

    • Thanks, MRo. I guess re-reading crime novels a few years down the line is the ultimate test, and I’m glad to hear the Garnethill Trilogy held up for you. I must catch up on the second two, but will perhaps back-track to the first as a starter.

  11. Some of Denise Mina’s Alex Morrow series are excellent.
    She is a must-read for me but I had The Long Drop and just couldn’t get into it, so back to the library it went.

  12. I read, listened to and watched an awful lot of le Carre last year (about this time) whilst off work following a bike accident. I can definitely recommend the biography and I’m looking forward to reading the pigeon tunnel this summer. I’ve also got the audio book which is narrated by the great man himself.

    Also did you catch A Perfect Spy? Playing on Radio 4 on Sunday.

    • Ouch to the bike accident, but hooray for lots of le Carre listening and watching time. Hope you’re fully recovered now.

      Thanks for alerting me to A Perfect Spy. I hadn’t realised it was on. (The link for anyone who would like to catch up is http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08wmwyy – available for another 20 days or so). I think A Perfect Spy is one of his best.

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