A Willing Victim, By Laura Wilson


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The Independent Culture

Nineteen fifty-six was a year of seismic changes: from nuclear brinkmanship and the Suez Crisis, to the rise of the Christian evangelist Billy Graham.

The appeal of religious demagogues is one of the themes of crime novelist Laura Wilson's latest, as her copper DI Ted Stratton moves into the 1950s. As well as being a slow-burning but accomplished murder mystery, A Willing Victim is also a disquisition on the seductive attractions of unquestioning faith. And the word "seductive" is key here: a femme fatale at a religious commune trades in carnality as much as the state of grace.

On a November day in 1956, Stratton is at a murder scene in Soho; the victim is a solitary individual obsessed with esoteric religions. Stratton's investigations take him back to what was once his home turf, Suffolk, and a house believed to be haunted. It is now the headquarters of a cult, the Foundation for Spiritual Understanding. Stratton's probings into the life of murdered loner Jeremy Lloyd lead to an encounter with a 12-year-old boy who has been announced as the current incarnation of Christ and Buddha; and the woman reputed to be his mother has vanished. Charismatic figures – including a woman of implacable sexual power – are at the centre of a sinister mystery.

Wilson's beguiling book evokes other authors, including another chronicler of period Britain, Patrick Hamilton; and the picture of an ill-fated religious commune destabilised by the sexual impulse suggests Iris Murdoch's The Bell. Wilson herself really excels in the passages of poetic description, such as the saturnine detective's musings on the threat of a bomb-devastated world: "He thought of the Pathé newsreels he'd seen of the tests at Bikini Atoll, suspended skeins of cloud like the skirts of a gigantic ballerina, the air all around dying in the sunless glare." If there is something of a change of gears when such passages appear, Wilson is as adroit at the straightforward mechanics of the crime mystery as she is at evocative prose shot through with a keen sense of the past.