Written by Sarah Vaughan — Sexual abuse is a topic which fills miles of column inches these days. The #MeToo movement has made headlines too, putting the plight of the victims in the spotlight. The arrival of Anatomy of a Scandal seems somehow prescient…
James Whitehouse is a Tory politician on the up. Handsome, charismatic and charming, he’s also the best friend of the Prime Minister – they were at Eton and university together, of course – and looks destined for great things in government. He has a loving wife, Sophie, and two adorable children. A picture perfect family.
The facade comes tumbling down when James is accused of rape. The victim is his parliamentary researcher, Olivia Lytton. The place? A lift in the House of Commons – a touch that reminded me of Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard. The press are about to have a field day, and suddenly the Whitehouse family are persona non grata.
Her husband has always had an eye for the ladies but the news hits Sophie for six, and we’re allowed access to her innermost thoughts as the story progresses. James maintains he is innocent and Sophie believes him, but is that sense of certainty about to take a body blow? Barrister Kate Woodcroft offers a very different viewpoint. She is chosen to prosecute Whitehouse, and is zealous in her pursuit of the truth. A woman who has few friends, a failed marriage and who lives for her work, it appears she sees the case as a personal crusade. She is certain of James’s guilt. But can she convince a jury?
Intermingled in the stories of these two strong, very different females is the tale of Holly Berry, a gauche northern lass who feels something of a fish out of water when she arrives as an English Litarature student at Oxford University in the early 1990s. Her story seems out of place here, but Holly has an important part to play and as we learn more about her, the pieces begin to fall into place. As timelines jump forwards and backwards, the past threatens to catch up will all of the main players.
The title of this book is an apt one, because the writing is scalpel sharp, former parliamentary correspondent Vaughan using her considerable skills to cut through the layers and get to the rotten heart of the matter. It’s part psychological thriller, part courtroom drama, with the scenes in court working particularly well. The characterisations are spot on too, but the slow start is a little off-putting. Some novels begin like an out of control pantechnicon, racing along, barely giving us a chance to catch a breath. Others take their time, rattling down sleepy country lanes, meandering and soaking up the views. Much of Anatomy of a Murder falls into the second category, and in truth I was struggling to keep up my interest for a good two-thirds of the story. Then suddenly it springs to life and becomes a true page-turner.
This is a pin sharp picture of the privileged classes, their foibles and fears, deftly painted by an author who snags our attention and then plays us like a fish on a line. If you can persevere, then be prepared for some shocking shenanigans and a few revelations that may leave you gasping. With its mixture of political intrigue, sumptuous settings (including the Houses of Parliament and Oxford University) and a plethora of shocking secrets, Anatomy of a Scandal would make a great TV drama. If you’re a fan of intelligently written crime novels, then this is a book that fits the bill nicely.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 4 Stars