Macmillan £17.99 hbk
Reviewed by Bob Cartwright
Minette Walters, unfailingly, tells wonderfully rich stories which tend to illuminate the murkier aspects of our social structure or individual and collective psyche. Very often the aspects which are best left unspoken by lesser writers. But, for me at least, her less acknowledged gift is her ability to write herself authentically into a wide range of social situations. Thus Acid Row, her previous title gave a very credible account of life on a large, and multiply deprived, council estate in the throes of moral and social outrage at the incursion of a supposed paedophile. This time she travels nearer what I guess are her native middle-class roots, to Shenstead, a Dorset village which, for all its splendid isolation, is still subject to some of the pressures affecting the rest of Britain.
Small, as it might be, Shenstead is not a village as much as a patchwork of implicit tensions which come to the surface to dramatic effect in Fox Evil. The tensions affect all the residents in different ways, each mirroring their position and status in the community, and their relation to the predominant Lockyer-Fox family who have lauded it over Shenstead for five generations. So lets start with them. They are still recovering from the death, under suspicious circumstances, of Ailsa, wife of the now reclusive Colonel James Lockyer-Fox and mother of the wastrel, and permanently drunk Elizabeth and the gambler, and permanently indebted Mark both of whom departed the family doorsteps under very black clouds. Travelling down the pecking order we come to the Bartletts, Julian and Eleanor, parvenus from an opulent Chelsea, he recently retired from something in the city and now prancing around like a natural yeoman complete with horse and hunting garb, she attempting unsuccessfully to fill Ailsas role as lady of the manor. They are uneasily aligned with the Weldons, farmer Dick, and his gossipy wife, Prue who is led by the nose by Eleanor Bartlett into situations where fools like Prue are soon out of their depth.
And so to the bottom of the Shenstead social structure. First to the Dawsons, elderly husband and wife retainers of the Lockyer-Fox, a couple in a permanent state of war whose prickly dialogue is almost Shakespearian: wife Vera, her demented head "full of martyred resentment, and husband Bob, a man prone to respond to her jibes with his fist and boot. And finally, the group of travelers who have lately descended on a piece of disputed land in the village, most of them a kindly bunch wanting to live and let live, but sadly under the influence of the clever but evil Fox.
The uneasy truce between these disparate groups is upset by the intrusion of the Lockyer Foxs, London-based solicitor, Mark Ankerton who is variously determined to scotch the growing rumours that the Colonel was responsible for the death of his wife, shake the Colonel out of his reclusive state, and carry out the terms of Ailsa will which effectively disposses her children. Marks efforts to re-establish the Colonel with Nancy, his illegimate granddaughter who Elizabeth abandoned, over twenty years previously and with little remorse, to adoption. At first unwilling to have anything to do with her natural family, Nancy (like grandfather an army officer) travels to Shenstead and begins to charm the Colonel back into the world. Once that happens all the die are cast for a truly tragic Jacobean spate of blood-letting.
Fox Evil, is a wonderful story of our times which, like the rural environment it is set in, owes much to the continuities and discontinuities of history. It is a sometimes complex story with differing strands, but one which Minette Walters unravels like a true and sympathetic expert.