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.
Starts madly and with promise.
In the nineties Walter Kirn volunteered to drive a crippled Gordon setter from Montana to New York where a rich Rockefeller had agreed to adopt her. A crazy project but the author was a nervous wreck: broken marriage, grieving for his adored mother, friendless; an empty vessel but still compelled to follow the writer’s instinct for copy. Rockefeller supplied it in spades: diet and health freak (including canine), modern art collector (his dogs allowed to lick the paint), a shadowy background in banking, close connections with the US president and the Pentagon – but then he was a Rockefeller. A man curiously without friends he befriends Kirn who finds him fascinating.
And then without warning (or was there warning?) we leap to 2013 and Rockefeller on trial for murder in Los Angeles but now he’s Gerhartsreiter: “a German immigrant of many aliases”. Promise fulfilled but there’s a wealth of information to come not least the discovery of what happened to the Gordon setter, that poor bitch whose useless hindquarters were supported by a wheelchair. You lose sight of her as Kirn attends the trial and in flashbacks tells the tale of a conman’s progress over the decades.
As intriguing as the villain’s perfidy is the gullibility of his victims, notably that of Kirn himself. He acknowledges this freely albeit with shame and bewilderment for he still feels the dreadful magic of the man. The skill with which he assumed different persona was matched only by the ease with which he bewitched and eventually abandoned his victims. Kirn, visiting him in jail, although angry and deeply resentful at his own humiliation, recognises that the term “victim” applies less to himself than that of collaborator. One may recall ambivalence towards Truman Capote after reading In Cold Blood and shades of suspicion concerning Wambaugh reporting on the killers of The Onion Field. The Stockholm Syndrome was no myth.
Almost incidentally this delving into the psyche of a charlatan and his gulls catches the dark side of America from litter and smog to maudlin sentimentality in cahoots with barbarism. Whether the book is fact or fiction is immaterial. It is the story of an ultimate manipulator told by a perceptive and honest man with the further gift of faultless prose.