Who is the man called Fox Evil? His 10 year-old son --- if the boy
really is his son and really is as old as ten --- thinks Evil is
Fox's last name. Certainly the word fits his personality and his
actions. From the beginning pages we want to know Fox's true
identity; as the pages add up, we want to know how he got to be as
cruel and twisted as he is, and what drives him. It is not until
the very end of the book that we will learn any answers, by which
time Walters's sustained narrative tension will have stretched our
nerves very thin indeed.
Since THE ICE HOUSE some 15 years ago, Minette Walters has been
minutely and expertly deconstructing the idyllic English
countryside and its denizens, male and female, human and animal.
Her relentlessly dark view is enough to make even a fan of the
gothic and the noir long nostalgically for the innocence of a Miss
Marple, or of an Inspector Wexford --- for Ruth Rendell, even
writing as Barbara Vine, is not this dark. If Walters gets any
darker than FOX EVIL, her next book will be the fiction equivalent
of astronomy's black hole.
Shenstead Valley is in Dorset, so ideally located between wooded
hills and the sea that its small collection of houses and cottages,
clustered about Shenstead Manor, has become off-limits to all but
the stubborn old and the new rich. Most of the latter spend their
weekdays in London, but a trouble-making few have chosen Shenstead
for their retirement. The major available forms of recreation are
the local hunt club, a little golf, and a lot of gossip --- the
latter being of the lethal, not-so-idle variety.
Into this milieu comes a caravan of gypsy-like travelers, led by
the man called Fox Evil. His son Wolfie is a precocious, starving,
abused child who is the most appealing character in the book. It
was for Wolfie's sake that I eagerly read to the end of this dark,
convoluted and disturbing tale. Fox has brought the travelers to
camp out on a few acres of land that he happens to know have no
deeded owner. The travelers hope they may be able to claim it by
the English version of squatter's rights, so they will have
permanent homes at last. But Bella, a large, habitually purple-clad
woman with a good heart, suspects Fox has his own agenda of a sort
to suit his supposed surname --- and she is right.
The lord of the manor, Shenstead Manor, is James Lockyer-Fox. A
former war hero in his 80s, James recently found his wife Ailsa
dead on the manor terrace, dressed only in her nightgown and
Wellies, with bloodstains nearby but no wounds upon her body and no
visible cause of death. Furthermore, James does not know what she
was doing out at night, with the door locked so that she could not
get back in. He slept through it all. Though James was subsequently
cleared of responsibility by the coroner and Ailsa's death was
attributed to natural causes, his neighbors think differently and
are subjecting the man to a vicious campaign of gossip and
James's troubles do not end there. The couple who lives rent-free
at the Manor Lodge, supposedly in return for looking after the huge
old house and James himself, are doing no such thing. James has
been alone and sinking deep into depression until his young lawyer,
Mark Ankerton, comes to spend Christmas. James and Ailsa have a son
and a daughter, Leo and Lizzie: one is a compulsive gambler while
the other is a mentally fragile drug addict. Neither of them view
their father as anything other than a possible source of money.
James, in the depth of his depression, has with Mark's help reached
out to a granddaughter who was given up for adoption at birth.
Lizzie is presumed to have been the mother of this now-grown child,
but who is the father? The village gossips think they know, but are
they right or wrong? Around the time Fox and the travelers arrive
in the woods, granddaughter Nancy pays a visit to James and the
plot is set into motion.
It never does move very swiftly, but this is, I think, by design.
Walters has put us on notice by giving at the front of the book a
parable of The Lion, the Fox, and the Ass. Her plot is contained
entirely within that parable. The confined, almost claustrophobic
smallness of it must be, therefore, intentional. But the true
genius of this writer is found in her many-sided portrayal of the
characters as they interact with and impact upon one another.
Anglophiles beware: FOX EVIL may make you want to run to the mean
streets of Los Angeles or New York City for relief. Nevertheless,
it's a gripping read that fans of Minette Walters will not want to
Reviewed by Ava Dianne Day on January 22, 2011