Several things are certain. One is that on the night of Friday, Oct. 24, 1975, on a road near the coast of Somerset in England, an airline pilot named Andrew Gino Newton shot and killed a Great Dane named Rinka belonging to a male model and former stable boy named Norman Scott. Newton then pointed his gun at Scott, but apparently it jammed. "I will get you," shouted Newton and drove away, leaving Scott sobbing hysterically beside the corpse of his dog.
The following year, Newton was convicted of "being in possession of a gun with intent to endanger life," which seems to describe the situation. But that was hardly the end of it. On the day the trial opened, Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister of England, and two months later Jeremy Thorpe resigned as leader of the Liberal Party.
On May 8, 1979, in Number One Court at the Old Bailey in London, a judge and jury began to hear evidence on further implications of the incident. Thorpe and three associates were charged with conspiracy to murder Norman Scott, whose public remarks about a long-ago homosexual relationship were endangering Thorpe's career. One of the most sensational trials of the century was underway -- a trial whose six weeks of testimony and deliberation provide Auberon Waugh abundant material for a most unusual book, in which he demonstrates some of the satirical and stylistic skills of his father, the late Evelyn Waugh. Although known primarily as a journalist, Auberon brings a fiction-writer's sense of scene and character to this work of nonfiction.
Waugh admits that he is hardly a totally disinterested party. When Thorpe stood for reelection, just before the trial, Waugh recalls, "Although not by nature a political person, I agreed . . . that I should stand in North Devon against Mr. Thorpe . . . in the Dog Lovers' interest. This was plainly a reference to the murdered Great Dane and caused a little ripple of embarrassment among the more enthusiastic supporters of Jeremy Thorpe."
It is not merely power that corrupts but the quest for power. Waugh now recalls, perhaps with a tinge of regret,some "unscrupulous political accommodations, like affecting a greater interest in doggies generally, and a greater concern for the endangered doggies of North Devon in particular, than I naturally felt." Even with such compromises, Waugh lost, coming in fifth among the "rag, tag and bobtail of 'fringe' party candidates" who "made no noticeable difference to the result." But perhaps his assessment is too modest; if he did not attract many votes to himself, he may have deflected some to the Conservative candidate who swept Jeremy Thorpe out of office.
The result of the trial, a verdict of not guilty, was even less satisfactory to Waugh. This book is his revenge on the British system of government and criminal justice, and a rich, intricate revenge it is.
He follows the trial, day by day, through some luxuriantly tawdry and often comic testimony; he hops gleefully on absurdities, which the trial supplied in abundance; he hurls verbal acid at the British Establishment and the way it defends its members because of their social class, regardless of what crimes they may have committed. He is particularly eloquent on the practice that he insists on calling "buggery" and finds regrettably prevalent among graduates of the British public (that is to say, private) schools. He manages to bring in passing references to the FBI, the CIA and M15, Henry Kissinger, the royal family and South Africa, though they are at best only marginally relevant to the case. But above all he manages to vent an incredible quantity of spleen and, on the whole, to vent it rather cleverly. He is particularly effective in his discussion (almost an indictment) of the Hon. Sir Joseph Donaldson Cantley, the judge in the case, who seemed at times to be serving as a defense attorney.
To Englishmen, the Thorpe case must have had an impact something like that of Watergate for Americans. Readers in this country are likely to find it less important though perhaps equally colorful. They may sometimes find Waugh's treatment a shade repretitious, his indignation obtrusive and the lack of an index regrettable. But anyone who wants to know what is to be known about the Thorpe case will find it all here.