Sarah Vaughan has been on the Crime Fiction Lover radar before, her intelligently written, precisely plotted thrillers making reviewers sit up and pay attention. Back in 2018 we took a look at Anatomy of a Scandal, part psychological thriller, part courtroom drama, with an MP at its heart. That novel has now made it to the screen, arriving on Netflix on 15 April, starring Sienna Miller and Rupert Friend.
Since then Vaughan has wandered into other territory – such as postnatal depression in Little Disasters – but now the former political correspondent is back in the hallowed halls of the Houses of Parliament, where Labour MP Emma Webster’s stock is rising.
Emma is a hardworking politician who cares passionately about her constituents in Portsmouth South. She is steadily making a name for herself as a supporter of feminist issues and as the book opens she is about to go into battle on behalf of the victims of revenge porn, following the suicide of a young female constituent whose ex-boyfriend shared an intinate video online. After much hard work, Amy’s Law makes the statute book and Emma is ready to celebrate.
How she does that is the first step along the road to disaster… Because as the narrative skips from timeline to timeline we realise that Emma is in court, accused of murder. The reasons for her spectacular fall from grace are many. Let’s start with Emma’s teenage daughter Flora, who is being bullied mercilessly at school and who rashly decides to do something about it – with frightening consequences.
Then there’s the torrent of abuse, threats and trolling that seem part and parcel of being a female in the spotlight in the 21st century. Emma is a target to all of these things and more – for example, she is sure she’s being followed, and then the shadowy figure of a man looms up at her in the London property she shares with two other female MPs. What she does next has catastrophic repercussions.
Sarah Vaughan deftly reveals a compelling inside view of life in the political spotlight, ramping up a palpable sense of stress and claustrophobia and shining a light on the darkest corners of life in Parliament. Then there are the courtroom scenes, tense and vividly drawn, that keep the reader riveted for page after page.
The ping ponging timelines are further muddled by the use of ever changing perspectives and narrators, from Emma and Flora, to Flora’s stepmother Caroline and Mike, political correspondent for the UK’s second biggest national paper, and someone who has a huge part to play in all of this. It makes for an unsettling and sometimes confusing narrative – something that seems to be a Vaughan trademark.
This is a book about truth, lies, the bonds that tie us together, family loyalties, soaring ambition and, it goes without saying, reputation. In an era of unfettered social media and celebrity culture, it is a scary indictment of what can go wrong if you make an ill-advised move or two. The fact that it all seems so darn realistic is a sobering thought for us all.
There are certainly shades of Anatomy of a Scandal here, with faint echoes of Steve Cavanagh’s Eddie Flynn books for good measure. A heady combination for sure, but there were moments when I felt that vague sensation of having read it all before. Notwithstanding those slight qualms, I must hand it to Sarah Vaughan for throwing in some very clever curve balls when they’re least expected. In that aforementioned 2018 review, I predicted that Anatomy of a Scandal would make great TV. Reputation could definitely work there too. We’ll see…
There are more shenanigans in Parliament in Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 4 Stars