Peter Manuel was an American-born serial killer who was convicted of murdering seven people across Glasgow and southern Scotland between 1956 and his arrest in January 1958, and who is believed to have murdered others. Before he was identified and arrested he was named by the media as "the Beast of Birkenshaw". He was hanged for his crimes at Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison on 11 July 1958. Why did Peter Manuel become a killer? What drove him to commit such barbaric crimes? And why did it take so long for the police to identify and catch him?
"Manuel: Portrait of a Serial Killer" by A. M. Nicoll sets out to answer these questions. The author tells the full story from start to finish, from Manuel's origins and his love of gangster movies to his life of crime that would ultimately end on the gallows after one of the most sensational trials in legal history.
The book begins with a preface by Donald R Findlay QC, who relates how, as a child, he became fascinated by the trial of Peter Manuel. The book itself follows a largely chronological course, beginning with Peter Manuel's birth in the USA. We then follow his family's move back to the UK when Manuel was five years old, and his early descent into petty and then more serious crime. The circumstances that led to Manuel becoming a murder are explored in detail, as are the crimes that ensured his lasting notoriety. In many ways it is the author's analysis of the police investigation and of the trial that followed that forms the most compelling part of this book.
It is arguable that "true crime" books today meet a demand that in the past, in the days when everyone had a newspaper delivered and most people actually read them, was met by detailed newspaper reporting. The acts by and actions of Peter Manuel are not that far removed from the staple fayre of many a Tartan Noir novel. The important difference is, of course, that this book describes real things done by a real person to other real people, and that makes it in many ways the opposite of the escapism offered by crime fiction. We find the genre as a whole more difficult to come to terms with as a result, and we'd certainly not use the word "enjoyable" to describe this book. We would, however, say that it is very well written, and that it comes over as superbly researched by an author who has taken the trouble to examine all the evidence and look under every stone in his efforts to present what must surely be the definitive account of one of Scotland's most notorious serial killers.