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Detective Inspector Ted Stratton's fictional police career has unfolded against the background of one of the most transformative periods in London's social history. We first met him during the Blitz, continued to follow him at the tail-end of the war, when buzz bombs were falling, then into bleak post-war austerity, when it appeared that the fruits of victory were to be fewer in number than had been hoped. In this fourth installment in the series, it is November 1956 and war is again a worry. British troops are being deployed and the fear is that it will all slide inexorably into a conflict that will turn the cold war hot. The successful US airdrop of a hydrogen bomb on Bikini atoll earlier that year was less than reassuring.
Stratton's son has been sent to Suez, so that even with a murder to deal with, he cannot ignore the news for long. Still, Stratton is a man who gets on with his job and in this case, his job involves uncovering the facts behind the murder of an odd and lonely man in a Soho rooming house. Jeremy Lloyd was convinced he is in possession of a spiritual truth and claims to have written a book in which this truth is revealed. Now he is stabbed to death and his manuscript is missing.
The investigation leads Stratton to Suffolk, to a secretive cult called the Foundation for Spiritual Understanding, led by one Mr Roth, a man with rather theatrical mannerisms and an obscure past. He seems to exercise a kind of mind control over his followers and is grooming a ten-year-old boy, Michael, as a future guru, an avatar of Christ and Buddha. Michael's mother, who the cult members believe had conceived Michael immaculately, has gone missing. The woman who shortly turns up shot in a near-by wood, is not, however, Michael's mother.
The police investigation sputters on, hampered by the absence of the kind of technology that police rely on today. Still Stratton and his colleague Ballard do get there in the end. But it is less the unfolding of the criminal investigation that involves the reader than the various challenges to belief and disbelief that are central to the narrative.
Stratton is no mystic. He believes in fact, the kind of fact that a policeman can bring to court. He is, however, investigating a group that believes it has hold of a higher, undemonstrable truth, embodied in the rather banal pronouncements of Mr Roth, their leader. The book is set in a period when the eternal verities have taken a bit of a bashing and various alternative faiths beckon, holding out the promise of certainty in an uncertain world. Billy Graham has launched his first crusade in Britain and Stratton attends at the request of his curiously subdued brother-in-law, Reg. Ted is unimpressed, but Reg seems moved. Ballard's wife, it transpires, the normally down-to-earth Pauline, flirted briefly with the cult as a possible solution to her unhappiness and sense of being somehow unfulfilled. Even Stratton's natural scepticism is shaken when Michael, the child guru, tells him out of nowhere that he must shed his burden of guilt if he is ever to be happy. Stratton will be even more unsettled later on, when Diana, his upper class girl friend, tells him something about his daughter that he is unprepared to hear.
Looking backward, the 1950s might seem a unattractive decade in which to set a historical novel, at least compared with the political strife, intrigue, and menace of the 30s, the tension and terror of the war years, or the exuberance of the 60s. But as Andrew Taylor and now Laura Wilson demonstrate, it is a period well worth another, and serious, look as a time when the ground began to shift between our feet and the dramatic changes that were to create our current realities began to find expression.
There is one puzzle for which the author provides no solution and that is the significance of the title itself, coupled with the strap line "A lonely woman is the perfect prey." The female victim was certainly not willing nor was she especially lonely. Other lonely female characters are neither victims nor prey. This may have only been an ill thought-out marketing device, but it left me vaguely unsatisfied.
But that's a minor quibble. AN UNWILLING VICTIM is consistently interesting and often moving novel. It is, moreover, brilliantly written and scrupulously researched. Some historical fiction trades in nostalgia. This does not. Instead it details a period that few of us would willingly return to live in but which we really ought not to ignore.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2012
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