The shock of the new
Wendy Perriam’s latest novel is a much darker affair, and doesn’t pull any punches
09 March, 2018 — By Piers Plowright
WENDY Perriam’s latest novel – her 18th – is a shocker. And I mean that as a compliment.
The wit and pitch-perfect ear for the absurdities of human behaviour of her earlier novels and short stories are still there, but this is a much darker work.
The Tender Murderer begins with a killing that sends down 40-year-old City golden-boy Anthony Beaumont. The novel spares you nothing about prison life or about what happens when you get on society’s rough side.
It also tells you something about the power of the human spirit under pressure.
Wendy has used a quote from Ernest Hemingway before – it gave her the title for an earlier book – “The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places” is a perfect description, as it happens, for Anthony’s journey from the high-life, through the lower depths, to a new-found sense of purpose and a compassion for others he certainly lacked in his glory days.
Two people help him to survive: Darren, another prisoner, who needs Anthony’s knowledge as much as Anthony needs his down-to-earth wisdom; and Betty, a solicitor with a very human face, who steers him through the labyrinth and out again.
This is a timely novel. Financial crashes, pressures at the work-place, the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in modern Britain, the bureaucratic treatment of the vulnerable, and inadequate treatment of the mentally ill, are all woven into the plot.
Wendy has done her research scrupulously, but with her novelist’s skill she makes it serve the story, not the other way round.
And it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s comedy here and moments of exhilaration. The beautifully observed description of Anthony’s first moments of freedom after his release, for instance, his experiences as an office cleaner – he receives a “Cleaner of the Month” award – and the very touching story of the friendship with Darren which continues and develops outside prison.
There’s new-found love too, with Mary, another damaged individual, who offers him something much richer than his marriage ever had.
Wendy has never been interested in the conventional, the tidy, the neat. The title of this novel is taken from Robert Browning’s conversation-poem, Bishop Blougram’s Apology, which is really about the impossibility of dogmatic certainty, given our questioning human natures: Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things, The honest thief, the tender murderer, The superstitious atheist…
Her writing has always explored this “dangerous edge”, the cracks between perfection and reality, vice and virtue, hope and despair. The Tender Murderer, grittier and tougher than her other work, takes the journey a little further.
• The Tender Murderer. By Wendy Perriam, Endeavour Press available online at £8.99 and as an e-book at £3.99