Book review: Throw Me to the Wolves, by Patrick McGuinness

Patrick McGuinness
Patrick McGuinness
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Agatha Christie’s novels were rarely more than 50,000 words long. Simenon’s were even shorter. But what was good enough for them isn’t for crime writers, their publishers and – I suppose – readers today. Crime fiction is big business and the books swell accordingly. Patrick McGuinness’s second novel is no more than a middle-distance runner by today’s standards, but it is still too long, too long by at least a hundred pages. There’s a very good novel inside this one, and if it is not quite smothered, it is because the author is intelligent.He is also a poet which makes his disdain for economy surprising and an academic which – perhaps – explains it. One should add that, though the narrator is a policeman investigating a case, this isn’t a police procedural. Indeed, I would guess that a policeman proceeding in the narrator’s way would soon be shunted into administration. This doesn’t matter. Novelists are rightly granted a deal of latitude.

The title, Throw Me to the Wolves, is a good one. This is what happens when someone is accused of a terrible crime and is then monstered in the press and on social media. The old presumption of innocence, though still at the heart of the criminal justice system, has too often gone out of the window, as indeed – to be fair to our times – has always too often been the case in private conversation. No smoke without fire, you know.

Evidently the plot has been inspired by a notorious case a few years ago. Retired teacher Christopher Jefferies easily portrayed as an eccentric loner and therefore a man with peculiar habits, became the suspect in the disappearance of a young woman who was his neighbour. The press and social media went to town. In fact he was innocent; the real killer was discovered and arrested.

In the novel the police immediately presume their suspect, Mr Wolphram, also a retired teacher, to be the murderer. He is arrested and questioned; they try to break him, and even though they fail to do so, charge him. An ambitious local journalist gets to work, finding several of his former pupils to say he was weird, frightening, whatever. This is all disgusting and rings sadly true.

The narrator is a policeman, at first inclined to accept his colleagues’ view that the elderly man is guilty. But there is a complication. The narrator, Ander, is also one of the suspect’s former pupils, and remembers him rather differently: as a dignified, intelligent man and a good teacher. Of course he may be guilty nevertheless. (And of course in real life the narrator would presumably be removed from the investigation.) Ander’s assistant, Gary, from a rough background, has at first no doubt: the man’s a weirdo, right? But Gary is intelligent. The relationship between him and Ander is very well done, acutely imagined: “Each of us likes the other more than we let on.”

There are many flashbacks to Ander’s school days. His school, back in the Eighties, was evidently horrible, packed with sadists and perverts. Mr Wolphram wasn’t one of them. Quite the contrary in fact. So perhaps he is innocent. Actually, the alert reader may be sure of this quite soon, even if he or she doesn’t recall the real-life case.

The novel is intelligent and troubling. It raises disturbing questions. Is the present preoccupation with cases and allegations of historical abuse a guilty response to the indifference of the still quite recent past when, for instance, Sir Jimmy Saville could be admired, even revered? Or is it perhaps a reflection of contemporary obsessions, fuelled by the easy availability of pornography?

This is a novel which, while fulfilling the first function of fiction – which is to entertain, to give pleasure – also invites reflection about the state of morality today, about the lust for witch-hunts and the zeal to punish – even before any guilt has been established. So, while being a well-written and enjoyable crime novel, it’s also a disturbing one – though one crying out for an editor who recognises that in novel writing less is often better than more. - Allan Massie

Throw Me to the Wolves, by Patrick McGuinness, Jonathan Cape, 330pp, £14.95