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.
The class of the title isn’t social but psychological, its difference revealed with exquisite timing over 400 pages – twist following twist – until one succumbs, defeated. For, after the first few pages, although acknowledging style and a neat angle on familiar themes; it becomes apparent that this is not to be a whodunit, but what happened and how.
The backdrop to the narrative being education; while the theme being the development of a psychopath. Then Salome starts to drop the veils. This book has to be read a second time to appreciate the intricacies of a novel that conceals in its sub-plots and a miasma of horror as neat a puzzle as you could wish for. To elaborate is risky because everywhere there are clues, and all make for an extraordinarily artful brew. The author is a witch.
The action evolves in a Northern grammar school for boys, in its catchment area (middle class, aspiring), a sink estate, and flooded clay pits that are the dumping ground for waste: household rubbish and old cars, rotting clothes and bedding and dead things. The grammar school is failing and a new Head Teacher is brought in: a successful technocrat intent on dragging this crisis-ridden dinosaur into the 21stcentury. His main opponent is Straitley, the Classics master and a Luddite carrying excess baggage. Twenty-five years ago the new Head was his pupil: a clean clever 14-year-old, quietly disruptive, even disturbing. At 39 he is in his prime.
The action switches from 1981 to 2005 and back. In the intervening years the school goes downhill almost insidiously now to be rescued by a man of charisma with a cohort of Suits and his coup de grace: the school is to merge with its sister establishment. Girls are to enter the sixth form. As if it were not permeated with sex over the recent decades as much as with intimidation, blackmail, rumour, even the odd curious death.
Excellent characterisation, particularly Straitley, the classics man, but his colleagues and pupils come a close second; never forgetting the villains who range from the pitiful to the atrocious. This book is so enthralling that in the compulsion to find out what happens, you miss those ingenious clues.
A grand puzzle and an even better read.