Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
Two twelve-year-old boys, skiving off school, go for a swim and find a murdered woman. Innocent, aware of their civic duties – although seldom observing them – they report their discovery to the police only to be told that the woman was a known whore and that they are the killers.
This is a remote village in the Brazil of 1961, a country struggling out of feudalism into professed democracy, the boom days of coffee over, the great plantation owners turned politicians: opportunists endowing schools and hospitals as a means to further status. Little has changed for the poor since the days of slavery; workers are still exploited, women used and discarded like chattels; police, local authorities and the church are in the pockets of the politicians.
In such a corrupt world Anita, the murdered woman, was removed from an orphanage at fifteen to be married to a dentist in his forties. Anita’s mother, Elza, was raped at eleven. Elza was of mixed blood, Anita passed for white. Her half-brother was black, as was their grandmother. Plantation owners were white. Racism and misogyny were exacerbated by hypocrisy.
The police were merely having their fun when they accused the boys of murder; Anita’s widower was shortly arrested, charged, and found hanged by his own tie in his cell. In fact ties were removed when men were imprisoned. The boys learn this from an aged pensioner who escapes from the old folks’ home at will by climbing over the wall. Wandering the streets he encounters the boys. At first the trio bond in their hazy conviction that the dentist didn’t kill his wife but by way of long surreal conversations it transpires that what really moves these unlikely investigators is their intense compassion for the victim. Anita was an undoubted whore but one who had suffered in ways which the boys can only sense whereas the old man, tortured and imprisoned when young as a Communist and atheist, was forced to watchhis wife horribly abused by their gaolers.
Sleaze, squalor and nobility are exquisitely entangled by Puccini’s Tosca, an opera adored by Hanna, the gross madame who identifies with the eponymous heroine’s plunge from the battlements after her vain attempt to save her lover from the firing squad. It’s the strains of Hanna’s records, audible in the village street, that lure the old man to the brothel followed by the boys.
For all the horrors in this exotic story (which was introduced by one of the boys) when the man records his epilogue forty years later, he does it so poignantly that you realise with surprise that this is not a haunted man recalling the loss of innocence but a brilliant author ending a book. And one that is startling in its glimpse into another world – and most ably translated by Nick Caistor.