A Capital Crime, By Laura Wilson

Secrets and lies in post-war London

Barry Forshaw
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:35

Justice is in short supply for one of the characters in Laura Wilson's new novel. Does Wilson herself need a touch more? Just how much comfort does it offer her to know that she is regarded as one of the country's most acute psychological crime novelists? Such books as The Lover and An Empty Death glean critical plaudits, but largely remain caviar to the general.

A Capital Crime is the most fully achieved book Wilson has written. For a start, there is the setting: an astringently conjured post-war London, all sooty yellow skies, damp-mackintoshed, grumbling queues and demob suits. Wilson has a Larkin-like eye for the telling detail. Then there's the plot, riffing on the Christie murders, with a cast of characters leading lives of quiet desperation.

A young man, John Davies, tells the police in Merthyr Tydfil that he has murdered his wife and baby daughter in London. Shortly after, Davies changes his story: the killings, he now says, were carried out by his pompous neighbour Norman Backhouse, a special constable in the war. Davies is not believed and is subsequently hanged, but a series of grisly discoveries comes to light, and two possibilities appear: a miscarriage of justice and the threat of more brutal killings.

Dealing with the lies and bloodshed are two solidly realised protagonists. The first is tenacious DI Ted Stratton, a copper given to neither alcoholism nor anti-establishment bolshiness. Wilson studiously avoids cliché with the understated Stratton, although his widower status here recalls other literary coppers. But the most striking figure is the ex-MI5 agent Diana Calthrop, prone to a series of ill-advised judgements about men. Her problems here are prodigious: financial, emotional and physical, as she comes within the orbit of a ruthless killer.

Was Wilson right to have her characters echo so closely their historical precedents? The semi-literate, ill-starred John Davies is clearly Timothy Evans, while the devious petty official Backhouse suggests John Christie. Run-down Paradise Street is a coal-hole away from Rillington Place. But if A Capital Crime initially draws its material from real-life murder and duplicity, Wilson ultimately offers a persuasive refashioning of history and moves into dark terra incognita. Don't think that because you know the facts of the Christie case, you'll be outguessing Detective Inspector Stratton. But you'll enjoy trying.

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