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.
Television personality, historian and academic, Professor Ned Marriott is in bed with his partner after his riotous 60th birthday party when a knock at the door heralds the police with a warrant for his arrest on suspicion of a sexual offence. The incident, in fact the novel, is epitomised by his bewildered observation that “it’s all gone mad since Savile.”
Despite the optimism of his solicitor who cites a witch-hunt, Ned puts his trust in his best friend from university, Tom Pimm, only to learn that he, too, is in limbo, found guilty of contravening the institution’s code of conduct. Tom has his own pithy comment: “It’s in the water. Some countries have typhoid. We have moral fever.”
The hideous, funny, shocking progress of the friends’ struggle, separately or together, against authority, society and the media is reinforced by historical references, from Kafka’s The Trial through the witches of Salem to the infamous hounding of Christopher Jefferies, the Bristol landlord arrested (and released without charge) after the murder of his tenant.
For some of the accused, for the bereaved, or others just waiting for an axe to fall, society is concerned to provide professional comfort. So the reader agonises vicariously as Tom Pimm suffers at the hands of his appointed counselor who oozes with the kind of solicitous syrup that could drive a saint to suicide.
In this novel there are no crimes in the popular sense, no murder, blackmail or child abuse; instead there is innuendo, dishonor, disruption of lives and careers, suspicion and devastation that runs like a plague through the victims’ circles. There is sin. Someone – Ned, Tom, the author – maintains that the sacrifices of the innocent are society’s apologies for its long condoning of Savile and other perpetrators.
This is an angry satire almost eclipsing the presence of a very good novel.
Cleverly and carefully constructed, with all the characters finely drawn, it is a joy to read for its style, its jokes and irony tempered with wit. Lawson ranges wide in his terms of reference, yet can strike home on his slippery subject with the precision of a barrister at the top of his form to make hanging judges of us all.