Wilson, Laura - 'A Willing Victim'
The fourth in the addictive DI Ted Stratton series is set in 1956, at the time of the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. It is an unsettling time in which to live. A man comes to Stratton's police station in London to inform the bemused officers that a galactic war is about to break out. Ted and his brothers-in-law go to a rally to hear Billy Graham preach his messages to an enthralled crowd. And there is a murder: a young man is found dead in his seedy Soho lodging, someone having stabbed him in the neck with a pair of scissors.
The murder trail takes Stratton to Suffolk, now home to his ex-colleague Ballard, who helps him with the investigation. The only clue so far found involves an author called Tynan, who writes books in the style of Dennis Wheatley. By interviewing Tynan in his grand mansion in the county, Stratton and Ballard realise that a nearby spiritual foundation is connected to the case. Among the mixed bag that forms this community are an irresistibly sexually alluring woman called "Ananda" and her young son Michael, who is believed by the residents to be the product of immaculate conception and hence a new Messiah.
The down-to-earth Stratton and Ballard try their best to make some pragmatic sense of all this mumbo-jumbo by tracing Ananda's complex history under a different name when she was a vicar's wife and, later, widow, in the 11 years since the end of the Second World War. The book comes into its own in the second half, as the various mysteries come together, clues turn into leads, the pace picks up, and the plot becomes deeper and more satisfying.
A strong element of the Stratton novels is the development of the recurring characters: Stratton himself, his grown-up children Pete and Monica, his extended family and the upper-class Diana. The domestic concerns of Ballard and his wife (an ex-policewoman) are also a feature in this novel. The author uses these themes to present a perspective on the social issues of the day, often concerning attitudes to sex, conception and children: in addition she creates a canvas replete with a convincing sense of life in 1956 by a plethora of unobtrusive but fascinating small details such as the type of overalls people wore, the advent of denim jeans, the films showing at the cinema and the awful diet of fish-paste sandwiches and over-boiled vegetables.
Although the novel is a very good read, I felt that the author was more interested in exploring the reasons for people's spiritual beliefs, as well as the psychology of sects in general and their effects on individuals within them, than in the mystery itself - Stratton takes rather a back seat. By the end of the book, I was not even sure which character is the titular "willing victim". There are holes in the crime plot: some characters are simply not questioned by the police when it is obvious they should have been, so crucial facts are discovered too late, whereas others behave suspiciously but are left to their own devices, to tragic effect. With its many plot strands and characters from different places, the novel loses focus; in addition, the ending is a slight let-down in that several aspects are left in the air and some elements are omitted - after a big build-up, Ananda remains an enigma whose past actions are left as suppositions in at least one important case. Some points seem to have been forgotten, for example when the original murder case is solved, the criminal confesses to killing the victim by a method that the pathologist said in the autopsy early on in the novel was not the mode of death. Despite these flaws, I enjoyed this ambitious book, and shall continue to look forward to the future cases of Ted Stratton.
Maxine Clarke, England