Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Very English Scandal by John Preston

John Preston writes from real-life events, in this case a very public murder trial involving a homosexual Member of Parliament, Jeremy Thorpe, and his liaisons during the 1960s and 70s. The case highlights the difficulties faced by closeted gays where anti-sodomy laws were still on the books, though in the summer of 1967, homosexuality was no longer outlawed between consenting adults at least 21 years of age. But passing a law is not the same as eliminating the stigma of the designation, and gays in politics were reluctant to let their sexual preferences be known lest their bid for reelection be lost.

The case of Jeremy Thorpe, elected the youngest leader of the Liberal Party in a century, was a complicated and sordid affair. To hide an earlier sexual liaison with a handsome but unstable young man, Thorpe engaged his friends and colleagues in a scheme to kill the man to prevent news of his homosexuality emerging. It is a remarkable bit of research for a case nearly fifty years old.

Thorpe was apparently a talented politician, though as I remarked in a review about Ben MacIntyre’s account of Kim Philby, charm is hard to understand unless we see/experience it. (Donald Trump is said to be personally magnetic and charming, though watching him on television does not convey this attribute. If we accept that this description is true, one would have to experience that magnetism in person.) Anyway, Thorpe had a good name for faces and was a good conversationalist, but he wasn’t a very good minister and he was a bad friend, casual with relationships, and greedy for power at any cost.

What was queer about this true crime story was the compliance of Thorpe’s colleagues and hangers-on. Preston posits that one colleague and friend, Peter Bessell, was so interested in preserving Thorpe’s warm attentions that he consistently did things against his own interests. In Preston’s narrative, Bessell was a worthy friend though a weak and incompetent man, money running like water through his hands, losing his inheritance and many loans several times with get-rich schemes that never seemed to work out.

The case went to court, and an ambitious lawyer took Thorpe’s defense. Thorpe was acquitted of the attempted murder, but he lost his seat and wasn’t ever able to regain his previous standing. Thorpe imagined that he would lose his leadership role because he was homosexual, but in fact he lost it because he was a conniving, murderous liar with no great ambition except to further his power.

The research into this period and people was painstakingly thorough and intimate. Near the end, in the hardcover bound edition, I came across several pages of excellent reprinted glossy photographs I hadn’t realized were there. They add a necessary visual component to the characters in the drama, rounding out our impressions of the persons herein described.

The book came out in May 2016 by Viking in the U.K., and was released in the U.S. this fall by Other Press. If a reader has any interest in how murder comes to be contemplated, this is an excellent introduction. For writers, it may be a useful character study to see just what combination of traits and events can push someone to the edge. Just be aware that if you are unhappy over elections or do-nothing ambitious politicians with revolting personal failings, this may just send you over the edge. I really admired what Preston was able to do to recreate the conditions for murder, but I can't say I enjoyed reading about a corrupt politician at this time. Bad timing.

Other Press, $27.95, hardcover, 352p., 9781590518144

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