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Interesting book on a suprisingly little talked about case
on 1 April 2009
I am something of a crime buff, reading a lot of true crime books and writing articles on the subject, but I must confess I had heard almost nothing about the case of Peter Manuel before picking up this book. Im sure for a generation of people around in the 1950s Manuel is well remembered and reviled, but for people of the younger generations very little seems to be said about him. For this reason I was eagerly anticipating the release of MacLeod and McLeod's "Peter Manuel: Serial Killer".
Peter Manuel, nicknamed the Beast of Birkenshaw, was convicted of killing 7 people in Scotland in the 50s, and was hanged at Barlinnie prison for his crimes. It is almost certain he killed another girl, police are convinced he killed a Newcastle taxi driver and speculation links him to anything up to 18 murder cases. This book is the story of his crimes and of his trial, at the time said to be the trial of the century at least in part because halfway through Manuel sacked his defence and represented himself.
The book is obviously well researched with interviews with people involved as far as possible and extensive, and sometimes newly released, source material used. The writers are also careful not to buy into the "myths" surrounding Manuel, but instead produce a non-biased assessment of the man and the investigation/trial of his crimes. The conclusions they reach about Manuel and the case are well backed up with good research and logic.
My only real criticism of the book, if I could call it a criticism, is that sometimes the narrative is a little difficult to follow. However, I suspect this is less because of the writing skills of the authors and more because of the massive complexities of the man, the crimes and the investigation, with the widely varying accounts by Manuel and his fantasies about reality only serving to make the case more complex. The authors have actually done well given the material they have to cover to make the narrative something approaching easy to follow and to hold the attention of the reader. They have also been careful to explain where necessary the difference on the Scottish legal system from that of England so that the reader can understand the narrative, without going into overcomplicated detail.
The writers do not hold back on giving their honest opinions about the protagonists in the case, for example they are scathing about Manuel's father and his subsequent admission after his son's execution that he had lied in court on his behalf. However, they are also appropriatly compassionate to the victims families and indeed some of Manuel's family too which all serves to highlight the non-biased approach they have taken to the book. They also do not fall into sensationalist writing as many crime writers do, but are instead realistic e.g. they only attribute crimes to Manuel for which they think their is sufficient evidence, rather than speculating. I also liked the fact they did not use the book to make a case for or against capital punishment as this issue would only cloud the case they are examining - a pitfull a number of crime authors whose accounts I have read have fallen into.
If you are looking for an account of the psychology of Manuel and an idea of why he may have committed his crimes this is probably not the book for you though. The focus is more on a narrative of events and analysis of what crimes Manuel committed and how he committed them rather than an analysis of the working of the man himself. The book does touch on this, for example reporting what psychiatrists who examined Manuel concluded about him and looking at his period of probably fained insanity in an attempt to avoid execution. However, they admirably acknowledge that they have no specialist knowledge of forensic psychology so do not try to make judgements on this themselves.
Overall, I found this to be an excellent account of this case which has made me want to read further around this subject. I would say it is a particularly good book to read if you want to get a basic knowledge of this case before perhaps reading another book on the psychology of Manuel.