McGuinness, who teaches French and comparative literature at the University of Oxford, has just published “Throw Me to the Wolves,” a novel — his second — that combines elegant prose with caustic commentary on romance, education and crime in his homeland.
The book is set in County Kent, southeast of London and near the English Channel. A town there is home to the fictional Chapelton College, where in the 1980s we meet a teenager named Ander and a popular professor named Michael Wolphram.
Ander, jaded and frank, says of a fellow student: “He has a scholarship, so falls exactly into that zone — intellectually superior, socially inferior — that makes the English upper-middle class uneasy.” Nor is this school a placid place. Early in the story, fun-loving students dangle another boy off a bridge near the campus. He survives, but other dangers lie ahead for the unwary: A sadistic professor, for instance, recruits class bullies to humiliate a blameless student who has offended him. It’s the good-hearted Professor Wolphram who saves the boy from a thrashing.
Wolphram is well aware of how his students feel about school: “They’re easily bored, but more to the point they never expect to be interested. The best they can hope for when they get up in the morning and go out to school is a change of boredom.” Such sentiments, coming from an Oxford professor, are not a ringing endorsement of English education, even that accorded its most privileged young people.
Most of the novel, however, takes place when Ander is a detective in his 30s and Wolphram is retired. Ander’s police partner, Gary, has working-class roots and calls his better-educated colleague “Prof,” but they’re skilled investigators and work well together.
Ander grumbles of the detective’s life: “Two domestics, an arson, a couple of break-ins. Even the thieves pitch their fantasies low these days.” But, he adds, “Against it all, under the police work, under the courts, the unseen plumbing of the system, is violence against women.”
That violence becomes central to the story when he and Gary investigate the murder of a young woman in her apartment. As it happens, she lived near the now-retired professor Wolphram. He admits to an innocent friendship with her and soon finds himself charged with killing her. Ander and Gary doubt his guilt, but their superiors are more interested in headlines than justice.
As the investigation unfolds, the author introduces new characters, romances and plot twists. He gives Wolphram a female friend whom he had known “from an easy-going, happy twenty-nine-year-old, to a trembling, fearful wife with captivity-bred eyes, whose husband checked her whereabouts, decided on her clothes and locked her in when he went out with his mates.”
McGuinness has an eloquent touch. Here’s Ander on his 12-year-old niece: “Her curiosity is unassuageable but selective . . . Everything that is obviously intended for children she ignores. That includes teachers.” (The author, it should be noted, has a daughter about that age.) When the two detectives take a trip, Ander notes “We smell the sea before we see it.” Only eight words, but most people can write for a lifetime and not produce so perfect a sentence.
McGuinness borrowed his title from the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who reportedly said “When I die, throw me to the wolves. I’m used to it.” Diogenes’s lament is a fitting title for a tale so unburdened by illusions.
Patrick Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries regularly for The Washington Post.