Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
Maud Stack’s death wish is increasingly obvious; alluring, academically brilliant, exhibitionist, she is madly in love and careless of who knows it in the New England college where she is in thrall to a married man. But Professor Brookman’s wife is coming home from a visit to her former Mennonite community and she, too, is a passionate woman but not careless. Brookman’s feet are cold.
There is a hackneyed air about this plot; for all its sophisticated style the theme is mundane. Husband has affair with younger woman and is desperate to end it. Girl objects. But the expected climax of wife-mistress confrontation is diverted by Maud’s action in another direction yet one that still leads to a disastrous climax.
If the basic theme was trite it is enriched by the intense emotional lives of the principals set against an exotic background which epitomises the American class system, supposedly dormant but up and running. Visible from the womens’ dorm on campus are lines of homeless men waiting for handouts, jostling and intimidating the students, lewdly critical. It is Maud who mingles with the underclass, friendly, sometimes patronising, reserving a withering contempt for members of a Right-to-Life campaign currently rampant. Her brilliance with words and composition, not to speak of wit, result in a vicious diatribe against the anti-abortionists who lack education and a sense of humour. Published in the college magazine the media love it. Maud has stuck her head above the parapet and she dies violently.
After her death interest lies in the reactions of the people who have been closest to her, reactions so ramified that even the detective investigating the case is hard put to discover a killer in the welter of guilt and motivation. Perhaps the most affected is Eddie, Maud’s widowed father: a former cop who responded to the horrors of 9/11, is now an alcoholic dying of emphysema and a rotting liver. The man he sees as an opponent is, of course, Professor Brookman, himself devastated in his own way. And then there is Ellie, his wife and former Mennonite who retains beliefs that smack as much of earth as heaven: Ellie who observes and listens and passes judgement.
Secondary but finely-drawn characters are a nun turned counsellor who is haunted by atrocities she witnessed in the third world, and Shelby, Maud’s roommate, a small-time actress who can mourn her friend and castigate the paparazzi in the same breath. Shelby is survival material.
An impassioned book, well-written and an object lesson for men who think it possible to love two women at the same time and no one pays a price. Having said that, one has a suspicion that Americans, although wearing their hearts on their sleeves, are made of sterner stuff than their transatlantic counterparts. The same theme, transferred to Oxbridge, would make a very different book.