Derek Blore is an up-and-coming figure in British politics, no doubt about that. As Member of Parliament for Whitbridge East he is prominent in the loyal opposition, which he serves in the shadow cabinet, and has high hopes of becoming even more prominent after the forthcoming election, which his party stands an excellent chance of winning. His private life seems to be similarly exemplary; he has a beautiful, attentive wife, two handsome children, he knows good food and wine and he has a highly developed taste for the fiction of W. Somerset Maugham.

But he has an even more highly developed taste for boots and canes and other instruments of pleasure -- a taste, that is, for "something kinky." In the guise of Billy Bunter he regularly visits the shabby little flat inhabited by Bernadette Woolley, a "quite amazingly dim" prostitute who caters, however unenthusiastically, to his yen to be flogged just as he was back in his heavenly days at school. For these merry occasions Blore/Bunter wears "shorts, a gray-flannel shirt, a school tie and a boy's cap"; Bernadette is clad in "boots, a leather bodice, a short black scholar's gown and an academical square," and punishes her naughty pupil with a cane, which soon enough brings him to "the final revolting little conclusion."

Thus the scene is quickly set for "Scandal," A.N. Wilson's exceedingly funny novel about sex and politics, power and publicity, faith and betrayal. At the outset the one certainty is that Derek Blore is going to get himself into a fat lot of trouble; the pleasure for the reader lies in following the labyrinthine path along which Wilson takes him there, a path strewn not so much with corpses -- though there are a couple of those -- as with the dashed hopes of people to whom life has turned out to be not quite as generous as they had hoped it would.

Accompanying Blore on this fateful journey is a cast of many characters, each of them entirely and amusingly believable. His wife, Priscilla, is a peach: a lovely aristocrat who has persuaded herself that "being kind was her function in life, her avocation," but whose kindness is of the killing variety. From time to time Priscilla slips (kindly) into bed with Feathers, an alcoholic journalist ("the carefulness of his gait suggested a man who might be asked to give a urine specimen") who rouses from his stupor long enough to commit an act of exquisite loathsomeness.

A journalist of considerably more charm and conscience is Rachel Levine, an American now married to an Englishman named Hughie Duncan. He knows that his wife adores him, and he is grateful for this, but he himself has fallen quite madly for Priscilla Blore, to the extent that a mere glimpse of her "transformed the evening at the theatre into a semi-religious experience." His problem is that he is "a man with an overdeveloped inner life," a "junior disciple of Romance," a schoolboy who has yet to grow up.

All of these people get into various kinds of trouble with each other and with others as well, especially when Bernadette Woolley gets herself married to a Russian dancer, Juri Kutuzov, a homosexual who is "congenitally indiscreet, inefficient, lazy and promiscuous." Once this happens one thing leads quite inexorably to another, and Derek Blore suddenly finds himself meeting with a fellow from the Russian embassy, "the Professor," who has pictures and tape recordings and an offer Blore cannot refuse:

"In pious mood, Blore genuinely believed that it was patriotism that had led him to enter political life. He had discovered that he loved power more: power and position. Besides, as he had reasoned after his colloquy with the Professor, there would be no honorable way out now. They would not let him fade obscurely from the scene. If they could not have the high prize of an agent in the Cabinet, they could make him pay for it, by making certain that the story received the most lurid covering in the popular press. A resignation could never be effected quietly in such circumstances."

Fool that he is, Blore believes he can have it all; wise fellow that he is, Wilson knows full well he cannot, and leads him forthwith to the slaughter. This is no pleasure trip for Blore, but it's a lark for the reader. "Scandal" is deliciously witty, Wilson's prose is mercilessly tart, and his eye for human frailties is unsparing yet kind. Among his many fine books, "Scandal" ranks with "The Sweets of Pimlico" as the very best.