A young woman’s body is found wrapped in trash bags and duct tape. She’s been brutally murdered. Suspicion falls upon a neighbor, a retired teacher from the town’s posh school, primarily because he’s helped her with errands and his DNA is found in her entryway and her DNA is found in the passenger seat of his car. The evidence is thin and barely even circumstantial.
Two experienced detectives investigate. They are about as unlike as possible. Gary is a practical, rather hard-bitten policeman who tends to follow the path of least resistance. Alexander is university-educated, with experience in posh schools because he attended one – the same one the suspect taught at. In fact, the suspect was one of his teachers.
Then the tabloid newspapers and the social media trolls enter the picture. The suspect’s name is publicized, before any charges are filed. A vicious circle starts, with newspapers and social sites piling on as fast as they can even though there’s no additional evidence. Without telling the detectives, their boss files formal charges. And then the outpouring of hatred becomes national. But the two detectives begin to suspect the man is innocent, and they quietly undertake the kind of investigation that’s needed, the kind that used to be done before the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle and viral sensations on social media were even known.
Set in a small city in southern England, Throw Me to the Wolves by Patrick McGuinness is ostensibly a mystery novel. Reading past the first page brings a different understanding: this is a serious literary novel. Reading past the first few chapters deepens that understanding as the book becomes a serious, on-point reflection of journalism as it’s practiced today, what social media has done to “the public,” how what we Americans call private schools and the British call public schools really operate, and whether real justice can even be possible any longer.
It’s a stunning, profound book that completely blew this reader away.
McGuiness is professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford, where he is a fellow and tutor at St. Anne’s College. He has also published the novel The Last Hundred Days; two collections of poetry, Jilted City and The Canals of Mars, and the non-fiction books Other People’s Countries and Maurice Maeterlinck and the Making of Modern Theatre, among other works.
Throw Me to the Wolves is one of the best mysteries I’ve read. It’s also one of the best serious literary novels I’ve read. It will make you stop and reconsider your morning newspaper and your friends on Twitter and Facebook. It captures the spirit of our age.