Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
This legal and psychological thriller has been on the receiving end of a lot of hype since its publication a couple of weeks ago. My local bookshop got some advance signed copies in for Christmas, so I got my hands on it early and read it before the end of the year – enjoying it so much, I included it as a late entry into my Best of the Year list. Vaughan, a former news reporter and political correspondent, has certainly captured the zeitgeist in this well-written and page-turning thriller.
We begin with Kate – a barrister, a QC no less, returning to chambers after court. She tells us all about herself:
This is me: Kate Woodcroft, QC, criminal barrister; member of the Inner Temple; a highly experienced specialist in prosecuting sexual crimes. Forty-two years old; divorced, single, childless. […]
This is my world. Archaic, anachronistic, privileged, exclusive. Everything I should – and normally would – profess to hate. And yet I love it. […] All of this shows how far i have come.
Unusually, Kate has just lost a case. She decides not to socialise with her colleages, staying in her office, working out where the case was lost. Her clerk arrives:
‘What you need,’ he continues, and he looks at me slyly, his dark eyes alight with the thrill of a juicy case, ‘is something that will take you to the next level. That will completely make your career.’ […]
‘I’ve got just the sort of case you need.’
By the end of this first chapter, I was already completely hooked.
Chapter two, and the narrator changes to Sophie who is the wife of an MP, a Minister in the Government, a charismatic public figure and best friend of the Prime Minister. James is accused of the rape of his researcher. A younger woman, with whom he had recently had a brief affair, but it had ended before the alleged rape occurred. Sophie must stand by her man, she’s done it before – when they were at Oxford – can she do it again now it’s about to hit the papers?
Chapter five, and we meet James properly – and instantly believe he could be guilty when we discover that he’d ‘raced through girls at college as if he was compelled.’ This recent affair had been the first time he’d been unfaithful since he and Sophie married. He sees sex as ‘something purely physical, an itch that needs to be scratched’; with motherhood, Sophie hasn’t had the same need.
Then a few chapters later, we go back in time to 1992, and we meet Holly. A working class lass from Liverpool who can’t believe her luck at getting into Oxford and is at first totally overawed by it all. She soon finds her own place though, makes a friend in Alison from Leeds, and tries to ignore the upper class oiks like James and Tom (who will become PM), their drinking games and dining club ‘The Libertines’. There’s a rower called Sophie in her tutor group, and they often work together too.
So our scene is fully set. Vaughan swaps between past and present and the different voices, creating some great suspense. We can sense that in taking this case, Kate is exorcising her own demons, which remain tantalisingly hidden for ages. Kate builds her case, and the courtroom scenes are utterly gripping (reminding me of Apple Tree Yard – see here). I really can’t say any more!
This is a super first crime novel from a seasoned reporter who knows her stuff well. Vaughan went to Oxford too, so may have heard firsthand about the antics of the Bullingdon Club, which (in)famously counted Boris and Dave in its membership in the late 1980s – remember that photo which found its way into the press a few years ago? Vaughan’s scenario is quite close to the bone in this respect which adds a kind of frisson that, although her characters are made-up, is not entirely savoury. Vaughan keeps our attention though and I’ll definitely want to read whatever she writes next. (9/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR
Sarah Vaughan, Anatomy of a Scandal (Simon & Shuster, 2018) hardback, 400 pages.