Denise Mina's latest novel, 'The Long Drop', is due for release is March 2017.
Monday 2nd December 1957
He knows too much to be an honest man but says he wants to help. He says he can get the gun for them. William Watt is keen to meet him. Laurence Dowdall has already met Peter Manuel several times. He never wants to see him again.
Dowdall parks his beige Bentley on a dark city street and gets out. Watt is waiting on the pavement. He has parked his maroon Vauxhall Velox and waits on the pavement for the Bentley.
It is early evening in early December. Glasgow is wet and dark but still warm, the bitterness of winter has yet to bite.
Above the roofs every chimney belches black smoke. Rain drags smut down over the city like a mourning mantilla. Soon a clean air act will outlaw coal-burning in town. Five square miles of the Victorian city will be ruled unfit for human habitation and torn down, redeveloped in concrete and glass and steel. The population will be moved to the periphery, thinned to a quarter of its current density. One hundred and thirty thousand homes will be demolished in the biggest urban redevelopment project in postwar Europe. Later, the black, bedraggled survivors of this architectural cull will be sandblasted, their hard skin scoured off to reveal glittering yellow and burgundy sandstone. The exposed stone is porous though, it sucks in rain and splits when it freezes in the winter.
But this story is before all of that. This story happens in the old boom city, crowded, wild-west, chaotic. This city is commerce unfettered. It centres around the docks and the river, and it is all function. It dresses like the Irish women: head to toe in black, hair covered, eyes down.
In the street Dowdall falls into step with Watt, walking towards a doorway below by a red neon sign: Whitehall’s Restaurant / Lounge.
Watt is tall and stout and bald, dressed in bourgeois yellow tweeds and a heavy wool overcoat. Dowdall is slim, dark, mustachioed. He’s Watt’s lawyer. He wears a sharp dark suit under an exquisitely cut camelhair.
They go through the door to Whitehall’s and take a steep set of narrow stairs up. Watt can see the stitching on the back of Dowdall’s shoes. Hand made, Watt thinks. Italian.
Watt wants a Bentley too, and Italian shoes, but he needs to put this Burnside Affair behind him first. This is why they are going to meet a man who was released from prison three days ago. They are going to find the gun and solve the crime.
Peter Manuel wrote to Dowdall saying he had information about the Burnside murders. A lot of prisoners did, but Manuel’s letters were different. Most came from chancers who wanted money, some were from creeps who wanted details. Manuel didn’t ask for anything except the chance to meet William Watt face to face.
Dowdall arranged this meeting before Manuel was released but vacillates. Sometimes he wants to cancel, sometimes he insists they should go. In negative mood he says it’s pointless. Manuel is a professional criminal, a famous liar, you can’t trust a word he says. Then he thinks they can out-flank him, use Manuel to solve the mystery, he might give away a useful detail or two. Watt senses something other than a concern about the outcome: it feels as if Dowdall is afraid of Peter Manuel. Dowdall is Glasgow’s foremost criminal lawyer. He has seen a lot of life, met a lot of characters. It seems odd to Watt that Dowdall should be scared but then, Watt hasn’t met Manuel yet. He doesn’t know what there is to be afraid of.
Dowdall stops three steps from the top, holding onto the handrails and leans back, whispering over his shoulder.
“If he asks you for money, William, refuse, point blank.”
Dowdall already warned him about this back at the office. Any evidence they get from Manuel will be useless if money changes hands. But Watt is desperate and he’s a businessman. He knows you don’t get something for nothing.
“And don’t offer him any information about yourself.”
Watt grunts again. He is irritated by these warnings. Dowdall is treating him like a child, as if he knows nothing about these people, this world. Watt knows more than Dowdall gives him credit for.
Dowdall walks up the remaining stairs, into a dim lobby that smells of pork fat and stale cigarette smoke. The walls are panelled with yellow burled walnut. The cloakroom window is a dark slit, it’s Monday, hardly worth opening. Against the opposite wall a chaise longue is flanked by two onyx ashtrays on spindly brass legs. They are empty but still radiate the pungent odour of burnt offerings. Dowdall walks over to the facing wall hung with a velvet curtain. He uses his forearm to sweep it out of their path.
The restaurant is crammed with tables set with linen and cutlery but short of customers. Behind the bar a tinny wireless plays the Light Programme. It’s the Semprini Serenade: over-wrought symphonic reproductions of popular tunes.
Whitehall’s Restaurant isn’t a fancy joint. It’s a second-best-suit, affair-with-your-secretary type of place. Near the door, a big blonde and a small man are hunched over grey pork chops. At another table a trio of tipsy dishevelled salesmen chat quietly.
The only customer who didn’t look up when they came in is reading a newspaper in the lounge bar. He’s the man who knows too much. He’s alone.
Freshly shaven, Peter Manuel looks smart in his sports jacket, shirt and tie. His thick hair is combed back from his face. William Watt is surprised by how respectable he looks. He knows all about Manuel’s record from Dowdall, the rapes, the prison terms, the incessant house breaking. He understands now that meeting in Whitehall’s was Manuel’s idea, not Dowdall’s. To Dowdall the place is down-market. To Manuel a restaurant/lounge is aspirational. He aspires to be in places that are better than he is. Watt likes that about him.
On the table in front of Manuel sit an empty whisky glass and a half pint with a finger of beer left in it. A half and half: the drouthy gent’s refreshment. Watt is pleased when he sees that because he really, really wants a good drink, he wants it quickly and, in truth, he wants it all the time.
The maître d’ /boy-of-all-works is polishing forks by the dumb waiter, his back to them. A tendril of fresh air has followed them in from the street and stirs the stagnant cigarette smoke hanging in the room, alerting him to their presence. He turns, nods an acknowledgement, abandons the cutlery and begins a torturous, snaking journey towards them through tightly packed tables.
The blonde with the pork chops recognizes Laurence Dowdall. Dowdall is a celebrity, often in the papers. She whispers to her companion and he turns for a gawp. The man mutters and they both smile down at their dinners. Dowdall’s catch phrase.
For a decade, any Glaswegian caught red-handed has conjured Dowdall’s name.
‘Get me Dowdall!’ shouts every drunk caught pissing up a close.
‘Get me Dowdall!’ says the apprentice boy, chinned for an unscheduled fag-break.
‘Get me Dowdall!’ jokes the hostess who is running short of sherry.
Dowdall is a punch line, a softener in an awkward situation, but he’s also a legal genius; he can get you out of anything. It might irritate him but the catch phrase is good for business and Laurence Dowdall is all business.
Watt knows that having Dowdall for a lawyer makes him look guilty but Dowdall Houdini’d him out of prison. He wouldn’t have anyone else now.
The maître d’ makes it over to them and Dowdall explains that they are here to see that gentleman. He points and Peter Manuel looks back at them.
Led by the waiter, the two men tack their way across the room. Manuel does not stand up to meet them but sits belligerently as they dock at his table. Dowdall effects the introductions. No one attempts to shake hands.
Watt and Manuel are in no way similar. They look as if they are in different stories altogether.
If this were a movie William Watt would be in an Ealing comedy. Watt is an inherently funny man. Six foot two in an age of small men, he is ungainly, rotund, especially in the middle where he wears his suit trousers belted. He is balding too, his thin hair smeared back on his big baby head. He has preposterously large hands. He is fifty and looks like an actor playing a bumbling authority figure in a gentle comedy of manners. In some ways he is. He was a police reservist during the War and his duties were essentially walking around while being taller than other people. It meant a lot to him, that time. Mr. Watt likes power and being near powerful people. He likes respectability and being near respectable people. But most of all he likes being near powerful, respectable people.
Peter Manuel is in a very different film. His would be European, black and white, directed by Clouzot or Melville, printed on poor stock and shown in Art House cinemas to an adults-only audience. There wouldn’t be violence or gore in the movie, this is not the era of squibs or guts-on-screen, but the implication of threat is always there. Short but solidly built, at five foot six Manuel has the rough-hewn good looks of Robert Mitchum. He is thirty years old. His eyebrows are heavy, his lips quite broad and sensual. He wears his black hair Brylcremed back from his square face, combed into thick glistening strips like oily liquorice. He glowers through his heavy brows. His sudden smile is rare and always welcome, a reassuring signal, perhaps, that nothing bad will happen after all. The smartness of his dress is often remarked upon and he is confident of the impression he makes on women. He always insists they be allowed to serve on the juries at his trials.
They pull back chairs to sit down. To Watt’s dismay, Dowdall takes his overcoat off. He means to stay despite Watt making it clear back in Dowdall’s office that he wanted to talk to Manuel alone. He thought it was agreed but realizes now that the answer Dowdall gave him wasn’t definitive. Dowdall smiled. You may have been in prison, Bill, but you don’t know these people, not really. Dowdall became almost tearful. Some of these people, he said, they’re not even trying to be bad. They just are bad, everything they do is bad, and if it doesn’t start bad with them, they’ll turn it bad. Watt is a man of the world and said so but Dowdall smiled gently and told him, Bill, some of these men don’t seem to be of this world. These people are stained, their very souls are tainted. Then he patted Watt’s hand as if he regretted having to tell a child these dreadful things.
Dowdall is blatantly Roman Catholic. Most Catholics have the manners to disguise their leanings when they are in mixed company but Dowdall doesn’t. He doesn’t have a crucifix up in his office or ostentatiously namedrop priests or monsignors the way some aggressive Catholics do, but his everyday conversation makes oblique references to souls and stains and good and bad. Watt finds it rather outré. Unusually for the time, Watt is not a religious bigot but he doesn’t know why a man as sophisticated as Dowdall would keep bringing up something so controversial all the time.
Standing by Manuel’s table, Dowdall turns his expensive camelhair overcoat inside out, showing off the shimmering orange silk lining. He folds it in half and lays it over the back of the fourth chair. He is trembling a little. It is unlike him. Watt doesn’t need Dowdall to stay and look after him. Watt isn’t the one who is trembling.
The maître d’ takes their order. Dowdall orders a Johnny Walker and soda. Watt orders a half and half for himself and another for Mr. Manuel. He does it graciously. Manuel doesn’t thank him but nods lightly, as if to say yes, that’s something he will allow. His insouciance borders on insolence. This impresses Watt who has more money than almost everyone else he knows and he knows how corrosive gratitude is to a person’s dignity. He’s impressed that Manuel has countered the gift with a gesture both regal and slightly belittling. He wonders how much money it will take to get the gun.
As Watt is thinking this he looks up. He finds Peter Manuel watching him, a cigarette dangling from his lips, eyes narrowed against the thin plume of smoke snaking across his face. Manuel draws on his cigarette and a smile creeps into his eyes. Watt wonders if they’ve met before but doesn’t think so. He doesn’t recognize the face but feels that he already knows him, somehow.
The salesmen are tittering, they’ve realized that the great Laurence Dowdall is here. But then they spot William Watt, recognize him from the papers. Their grins fall sour. They whisper, serious things, sad things, nasty rumours about Watt and his daughter.
Watt needs a drink. He looks for the waiter. He is behind the bar, looking away.
Dowdall and Manuel light cigarettes, Manuel a stubby Piccadilly from a crumpled paper packet, Dowdall his Turkish hand-rolled from a wooden box. Dowdall smokes quickly, nervously. They avoid eye contact.
Watt sees this and wonders, fleetingly, if he is the mark, if they are working him together. But no. Dowdall would never jeopardize his reputation. Watt is Dowdall’s latest calling card, the Burnside Affair is high profile and Dowdall has come out of it well.
Watt draws a breath to speak but Dowdall stills him with a shake of his head. The waiter is near enough to hear them talk and the restaurant is quiet, despite the hissing wireless.
So they all three sit and wait in silence for their drinks. The symphony soars and the couple whisper to each other. The salesmen laugh and snort at what seems to be an off-colour joke. The waiter takes his time, laying the tray with napkins and ashtrays.
Watt looks up and finds Manuel looking at him.
“D’ye take a smoke, Mr. Watt?” His accent is Lanarkshire, his face unmoving. The question feels like a test.
Watt thinks before answering. He actually smokes a lot but doesn’t want to say so. “On occasion.”
Dowdall’s eyes flick in his direction, pleased that Watt is lying.
Manuel pushes his scrawny packet of smokes across the table with his fingertips and Watt looks at it. They are cheap but not the cheapest and quite an unusual brand. He doesn’t say yes or no but takes a cigarette from the packet of Piccadilly. Manuel offers him a light from a matchbook. It is red and yellow, a promotional matchbook from Jackson’s Bar.
Jackson’s Bar is a gangster pub in the Gorbals. It has a very specific clientele of suited men on the make. It is not for whorish women or clapped-out hard men. Fights happen outside, not in the glass-glinting bar. No one wants the cops in there, with jobs being arranged, deals getting done and connections being made.
Manuel sees him read the matchbook. Their eyes meet and they both understand. That part of the city is as small as a midgie’s oxter. They probably know a lot of the same people. Watt is sure he can do good business with Manuel, if they could only get rid of Dowdall.
They both look at Dowdall, tapping his cigarette nervously on the edge of the ashtray. Watt sees Manuel’s lip curling resentfully, wishing Dowdall away so they can speak to each other, unguarded. He sees that they have a common aim.
The waiter arrives with the tray of drinks. They all watch in silence as he puts them on the table and takes the money from Watt. He has charged Watt for the drinks Manuel had before they arrived. Manuel must have said he would pay. Manuel looks at Watt steadily. It’s cheeky but Manuel doesn’t seem embarrassed. He is so unembarrassed that Watt is confused. He searches his face for twitches of defiance but has the strange sensation that Manuel isn’t feeling anything at all.
As the waiter saunters away, Dowdall concerns himself with his scotch. Manuel widens his eyes at Watt. Watt frowns. Manuel juts his chin, telling Watt to begin but Watt doesn’t know what to begin.
Manuel looks at the salesmen, the couple, the passing Maître d’ and then eyes Dowdall. He smirks at Watt. Dowdall is a public man. They all recognize him. He has a reputation to lose. Neither Watt nor Manuel have any reputation worth defending.
Watt understands what Manuel means. He nearly smiles but Manuel warns him not to with a little shake of his head, no, don’t smile, just begin.
So Watt says loudly: “MANUEL! If I find out that you had ANYTHING to do with the Burnside Affair, why, I will TEAR YOUR ARMS OFF, sir!”
The room holds its breath.
Manuel shouts back, “NOBODY. DOES. THAT. TO MANUEL.”
Now no one in the restaurant is speaking. The couple stare at their plates, thrilled. The salesmen have drawn in tight around their table. The Maître d’ is watching, frightened, because it’s down to him to break it up if they start throwing punches. And Dowdall, respectable, well-kent Dowdall, has suddenly got a very itchy arse. He’s writhing in his chair but resists the urge to run.
Watt is delighted by how clever they have been, spotting this weakness in Dowdall’s resolve. He leans across the table. Watt’s giant hands are twice as big as Manuel’s. His huge head, his massive face, his shoulders, they dwarf Manuel. By leaning forward an inch he has colonized the entire table.
“Manuel!” Watt’s voice is sharp, “See here! Before we begin, let me make myself abundantly clear on one issue, right from the off-”
“KNOW YE TALK TOO MUCH, PAL?” Manuel’s tone is a prison-promise of a fight coming. He leans slowly in to meet Watt. Watt has to drop back or they’d be pressing their faces together like a couple of pansies.
Manuel exhales a stream of smoke from one side of his mouth and gives a bitter smile. Watt turns his whisky glass around and around on the spot. They smoke at each other.
Dowdall puts his hand on the table, calling an end to the round by tapping a finger on the tabletop. Tap tap tap. He asks Manuel if he has information for Mr. Watt?
With an unblinking nod Manuel concedes that he does.
Dowdall asks, will he give Mr. Watt the information?
Does that the information pertain to the murders at Burnside?
“Aye,” Manuel gives a careless shrug. “Sure,” he says, as if it’s nothing, as if it’s not the murder of three members of Watt’s family and the sex-attack of his seventeen year old daughter.
Dowdall reaches for his coat, drawing it onto his knee. He’s planning to escape the moment the information is imparted and he means to take William Watt with him. He nods for Manuel to begin but Manuel doesn’t speak.
Watt raises his eyebrows, interested to see how Manuel will stop this happening.
Manuel has a stubby pencil in his hand. He scribbles something in the margin of his newspaper and pushes it across to Watt.
Newspapermen, it says, as one word.
Watt doesn’t understand so Manuel nods at the table of salesmen who are now watching plates of gammon steak and potatoes being delivered by the waiter.
Manuel writes again, Not here.
Watt shakes his head, “Why?”
Manuel sits back, staring at Watt, and slides his hand across the tabletop to the newspaper. His finger rests on the scribble in the margin: newspapermen. He taps it.
It’s bullshit, and bad bullshit at that. Those men are not journalists. Anyway, Manuel and Watt have been shouting at each other. Now they can’t talk quietly for fear of it being in the newspapers? Dowdall draws a breath, his face skeptical, he’s about to say it’s nonsense but suddenly Manuel snarls a loud animal growl at Watt.
Dowdall is on his feet. His coat is over his arm, the Bentley key is in his hand. He empties his glass of whisky and soda in one smooth move, stepping away from the table with a little bow.
“Gentlemen,” he says, meaning quite the reverse. He squeezes Watt’s shoulder as he passes. A warning: be careful.
The greasy velvet curtain drops behind him. His relief billows back at them in a draught.
They are alone.
Watt means to begin by sounding friendly, hoping the evening will remain collegiate in tone.
“Well, Chief,” he says. “You handled that scenario very nicely. I must say, I am agreeably surprised to meet you.”
Manuel blows a thick stream of cigarette smoke at the table top and narrows his eyes, “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
Watt smiles pleasantly and toasts his new friend, “We most certainly have.”
Their night together has begun.
Curious reader, book-loving, flâneause, cyclist, angry-loner, collectivist socialist