Throw Me To The Wolves

Patrick McGuinness

Jonathan Cape, £14.99

There are ghosts everywhere you look in Patrick McGuinness’s new novel: the ghosts haunting former public schoolboy Ander Widdowson and those haunting an entire nation.

A young woman named Zalie Dyer is found dead, her body wrapped in bin bags and left in a secluded spot in Kent. Sixty-eight-year-old retired teacher Michael Wolphram has been arrested in connection with her murder and is being interviewed by two police officers. One of them is Ander, who was taught by Wolphram at the local boarding school, Chapelton College, 30 years earlier.

This isn’t simply a murder enquiry for Ander, any more than Throw Me to the Wolves is a straightforward whodunnit. Investigating Zalie’s death forces him to relive his miserable years at Chapelton, where he was enrolled in 1983 when his Dutch father moved to England. An anachronism even then, the school was a preserved remnant of Empire, where damaged teachers fashioned lonely and vulnerable boys in their own image and moulded the tougher ones into bullies who would enforce a strict hierarchy. The system’s cruelty plumbed its lowest depths during the IRA’s bombing campaign, when a boy with an Irish father was subjected to an excruciating “show trial” by a particularly sadistic teacher.

It’s hard for a copper in that position to be objective, especially one as thoughtful and sensitive as Ander. Luckily, he has his geezer-ish, scatalogically-obsessed colleague to keep him grounded, teasing Ander about his Criminology and Psychology degrees and middle-class lifestyle. Gary’s resentment that “the whole country is vomiting back the seventies and eighties, and we’re the ones cleaning it up”, and his obsession with the fatberg blocking the town drains, show an instinctive understanding of the moral climate that the wistful Ander, for all his education, frequently misses.

While Ander and Gary are trying to ascertain whether or not Wolphram is capable of murder, the press has made its mind up, condemning him on the basis that, as a neat and precise man who lived alone, loved books and opera and watched European art films, he must be a wrong ‘un. Tempted by journalists’ cheque books, his old pupils retrospectively edit their memories to match the media’s narrative, presenting Wolphram as a very different character to the man Ander remembers.

McGuinness plays all this out beautifully, allowing each aspect of the story to resonate meaningfully with the others. The trial by media of Michael Wolphram becomes the centre of gravity which draws together the culture of bullying and submission in the public school system and the sense in which our present time can be partly defined as a hangover after the rampant abuse and casual child sexualisation of previous decades.

The mob mentality whipped up by certain teachers in flashbacks may have taken place in the 1980s, but in this context they feel chillingly contemporary. Having the contemplative Ander as his narrator gives McGuinness the opportunity to let the story unspool at its own pace while he explores all its facets in clean prose polished to the point of translucence.