Review: Throw Me to the Wolves has plenty of verve and oodles of telling insight
This sophisticated and sassy novel, set in the Kentish Medway, mixes up the police procedural with a forensic account of the brutalising effect of the public school system.
There are, as per the usual formula, two buddies, in this case Gary who likes wordplay and his quieter and more contemplative oppo, the Dutchman Ander, who saw some very unpleasant things during his time as a pupil at Chapelton College.
Both detectives are straight from central casting. Gary “sweats processed chicken-water and smells of gravy” and comes “from a seventies police show, the kind where they smoke and hit suspects.” Ander, meanwhile, is a “ponderous fast-stream university blow-in,” and is thus quickly nicknamed by his oppo as “the Prof.” Yet they get on, or get on with it in that way that police buddies so often do, or perhaps have to.
Gary and Ander are working a case involving the brutal murder of a young woman called Zalie Dyer, with the arc lamp of suspicion well and truly trained on her neighbour, a retired Chapelton teacher called Michael Wolphram. His name happens to be the old name for tungsten and like the metal he’s tough, fully able to deal with all the good-cop, bad-cop routines, the sleep-depriving hours of questioning.
There’s a word that appears early on which gives you a clue about the tenor of this book. The Kentish estuary sludge, with its oyster grit and salt is decribed as “glistering” which brings to mind the title of John Burnside’s 2009 novel Glister. It too is set on the edge of things and both authors share an ability to fully detail the edgelands, to map the darkness on the edge of town.
Like Burnside, McGuinness is also a poet, and it shows. Throw Me to the Wolves is full of newly-coined words which add lustre and sparkle. Pool balls go “smacketing off” each other. Detectives go “snouting” through a suspect’s flat. A newspaper photoshops an image of Wolphram so that he is “Boris Karloffed” while voyeurs go “Peeping Tomming,” all adding to the fizz and unexpectedness of the writing.
Also like Burnside, McGuinness is a laureate of leftover land, “the satnav-anonymised interzones,” the underpasses and flytipped edges, with their “slow, sad, furtive accumulation of debris from our daily life.”
Here the rubbish piles up and piles up so that “by the end, it’s like some sort of showroom, a Walmart of the jungle, a futuristic shopping centre where the future’s been and gone. It doesn’t decay, biodegrade, compost or erode. The earth refuses it all: the fridge gases, the battery acid, the MDF, the swingers’ leatherette sofa and the stained mattress speared with rusting coils.”
If Throw Me To the Wolves is both a novel and a sort of state-of-the-UK report it shows decay and dereliction busily putrefying so many aspects of life. The media, here embodied in “Mad” Lynne Forester – a ruthless, mendacious tabloid hackette – constitute a veritable feast of moral suppuration, feeding their baying public with tasty gobbets of innuendo.
Forester is more than happy to throw Wolphram to the wolves, be they vigilantes, or worse, for the sake of a bigger cheque, recasting the teacher’s love of classical music and solitude as a salacious portrait of the Nation’s High-Culture Hermit-Ogre. His burgeoning story is certainly enough to dislodge another set of headlines about an enormous fatberg lodged in a main sewer, another fitting metaphor for our throwaway, take-away consumerist age.
The book is also a commentary on our seeming fixation with crime fiction itself and suggests that “the detective-thriller-police-procedural genre, with its twists-in-the-tales and courtroom exonerations is just a place in the culture where we’ve put the world’s missing complexity.” The unmasking of the real murderer in Throw Me to the Wolves happens all a tad too quickly for my liking but then again this isn’t a McDermid or Peter Robinson title: it’s a gloss and commentary on such procedurals. McGuinness is having fun with the form.
The novel is also shot through with plenty of sharp humour and savvy social comment. A posh crescent in town is “the kind of street where they dial 999 if you use a non-heritage colour on your porch.” The whole retro thing is skewered in the idea that “the old stuff has come around again, the vinyl, the scotch eggs, the craft brews and the beards, they’re suddenly doing good business. Just no longer to their old clientele. The old clientele can’t afford it; and anyway, they’ve moved. They’ve been moved.” It’s perhaps a case of what Gary calls degentrification.
McGuinness is a writer possessed of a fierce intellect coupled with an infectious delight in language, as well as sensitive antennae finely attuned to what’s going on. His writing has plenty of verve and oodles of telling insight and he clearly has ideas to spare.
Two previous books, The Last Hundred Days and Other People’s Countries each won the Wales Book of the Year award. In Throw Me to the Wolves he may well have penned a contender for yet another pop at the title.
Throw Me to the Wolves, Jonathan Cape, £ 14.99