I enjoyed Patrick McGuinness’s debut The Last Hundred Days which is an evocative portrait of the end of Ceausescu’s rule in Romania and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. His second novel ‘Throw Me to the Wolves’ is inspired by the real events of the Joanna Yeates case in which her landlord, Christopher Jefferies, was arrested on suspicion of her murder in Bristol in December 2010. The retired English teacher was released without charge and the real killer was caught, but extensive press coverage at the time of his arrest had portrayed him as an eccentric loner with false suggestions by ex-pupils that he had behaved inappropriately. In ‘Throw Me to the Wolves’, the setting has been changed to Kent and the character based on Jefferies is Michael Wolphram, accused of the murder of his neighbour Zalie Dyer.
The structure of a standard police procedural has been cleverly inverted and focuses on elements rarely explored in the genre. Rather than the killer, the victim or those tasked with solving the case, the novel centres on what happens to somebody who is falsely accused of a serious crime, based on misinformed assumptions about their appearance or lifestyle instead of actual evidence, and how their reputation can be publicly trashed overnight in the most intrusive way possible. The premise makes for some keen state-of-the-nation observations, especially where the behaviour of the tabloid press is concerned, and can also be interpreted more widely as an exploration of how established power structures can potentially put anybody perceived to be “different” in some way at great disadvantage.
The investigation is led by two detectives, Gary and Ander – a chalk and cheese double act in which working-class Gary often makes fun of Ander’s more educated background. Ander chooses not to reveal that he was taught by Wolphram nearly thirty years ago at Chapeltown College. The flashbacks to his teenage years at the boarding school are less compelling overall than the events in the present concerning Wolphram’s arrest, but they are pivotal to the searing social commentary which drives the story forward.
This is an intriguing piece of literary crime fiction, perhaps best appreciated by those who remember the specific case on which it is based. McGuinness was one of Jefferies’ former pupils at Clifton College and it is clear that he is still angry about what happened to a teacher he admired – and those who read ‘Throw Me to the Wolves’ will share that anger too.