Book review: A Lesson in Cruelty, by Harriet Tyce

Harriet Tyce asks serious questions of our legal system while serving up a compelling thriller, writes Allan Massie

Like many novels today A Lesson In Cruelty comes with three pages of praise for the author’s previous novel. This is not encouraging. Few of the names are well-known. One suspects that they often come from readers about whose judgment one knows nothing, even sometimes from the publisher’s own staff. So one often begins to read with no great enthusiasm. One is often right. Happily one is sometimes wrong. This is one such novel.

It begins with a woman, Anna, about to be released from prison after serving a sentence for drunk-driving and an accident in which he almost killed her sister’s young son.

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A young girl is brought in to share her cell. In the morning she is dead, her throat cut. Anna is immediately suspect, but a duty solicitor secures her release. He is ready to make things right with her probation officer and for some chapters we follow Anna’s early days in freedom. She is afraid, oppressed by guilt. This all rings true.

Harriet Tyce PIC: Rory LewisHarriet Tyce PIC: Rory Lewis
Harriet Tyce PIC: Rory Lewis

As the narrative gathers pace there are cuts to two women, both found guilty of murders, one a child killer, living on a loch island in the Highlands; every week a boatman leaves supplies for them at a landing-stage. Sometimes there is whisky – the elder one is an alcoholic. Why are they here?

Attention shifts to a young law student called Lucy. She is fascinated by Edgar, her Professor, a famous criminologist with a special interest in the possibility of rehabilitating murderers.

His own first wife was murdered some years ago. Lucy eagerly does research for her brilliant teacher. At a conference in Cambridge he argues with an old friend Victor, a Peruvian lawyer, who had also been a friend of the murdered wife. Victor insists that there are murderers who should never be released. Edgar disagrees. It is clear that he is as attracted to Lucy as she to him.

That’s the setting. The plot which will also involve Anna and Edgar’s second wife quickens and becomes complicated. There is violence and arson.

It seems that Marie, the killer of Edgar’s wife, may be on the loose. It would be wrong for a reviewer to say more about it, for there are engaging twists and turns which will include a fine Buchanesque chase to, rather than through, the Highlands.

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The novel becomes a compelling chase thriller, not short of violence, horror, and ingenious misdirection. Moreover, unusually for this sort of novel there is also much of intellectual interest and argument. It raises serious questions about the treatment of prisoners, especially female ones, and the possibility of repairing broken lives such as Anna’s. Harriet Tyce has been a criminal lawyer and the legal-moral attitudes to murder are explored.

She has brought off a notable double, writing a serious novel about crime and punishment, Dostoevsky being quoted, while also creating a plot as outrageously improbable as anything Agatha Christie ever wrote.

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It’s an entertainment which invites you to think seriously about the working of the law and our legal system. Especially in its treatment of convicted women. Moreover the characters with only one exception – rather an important one admittedly, ring convincingly true. A novel of ideas which is also a gripping mystery-thriller is something difficult to bring off, but Tyce has managed to do just that. It is also, I suppose what may be called a feminist book, written with deep sympathy for damaged women, though one in which, unusually, two of the most admirable characters are men.

I confess I approached A Lesson In Cruelty with no great expectation of pleasure, but found myself carried along by the narrative, engrossed while also invited to think. Considering past Queens of Crime, Tyce most closely resembles Ruth Rendell, especially the novels she wrote as Barbara Vine.

This is Tyce’s fourth novel. The first three should be worth looking for. In future her publisher shouldn’t feel the need to offer so many admiring quotes, mostly from unknown or little-known writers. Tyce doesn’t need a swathe of recommendations.

A Lesson In Cruelty, by Harriet Tyce, Wildfire, £16.99