I've Done It: I've Found the Worst Book
I like a good crime story. I even like a mediocre crime story. I just like crime stories. But B.P. Walter's A Version of the Truth was so unmitigatedly awful that I genuinely don't know what the publisher was thinking. I wish I could get a refund, for—alas!—this was not a library book. I actually spent money on this. But Waterstone's only gives refunds if the product is faulty, and "this is the worst novel I've ever read", does not count as faulty. A small stain on page 73 would count as faulty, but not the fact that the whole book is a disaster. The tagline of the novel is "There are three sides to every story," but it soon becomes apparent that Walter can't even tell one. We, the reading public, deserve better.
The biggest crime in this book is the crime against genre. It's not a detective story. We know who the criminal is. There is no puzzling it out, no reveal at the end. To be fair, the book markets itself more as the thriller than as a whodunnit, but it fails as a thriller as well, because the crime took place decades ago, in the nineties, and Julianne, the truly feeble one-dimensional heroine, is digging it up in 2019. There is no tension, no "can they stop him in time?" because we already know they haven't. There is no point to the narrative at all. It doesn't work as a whodunnit and it doesn't work as a thriller. It's really a melodrama about a young woman's trials and sufferings, and if it were written by Barbara Cartland and marketed as such, it might be quite acceptable, but as a crime novel, it is not.
The crux of the story—in so far as there is a story—is that Holly, the other truly feeble one-dimensional heroine, was raped at university. And that's it. From a thriller point of view, rape is a second-rate crime. In real life, of course, it's a horrific and devastating crime, but from the point of view of plot, it's hopeless. Rosemary Rowe's Masterclass: Writing Crime Fiction, suggests the following requirement of the crime genre: "it's about a crime, preferably murder" (my italics). Now, it need not, necessarily, be about murder, but I think it's much better when it is, because murder is committed by a range of people for a range of motives. Part of the intrigue and excitement of the crime genre is why the murderer murders—money, jealousy, revenge, sympathetic or unsympathetic motives. (There is a whole sub-genre of lousy serial-killer thrillers in which the killer kills because he's Evil, sometimes with a thin gloss of psychiatric jargon which confuses a medical diagnosis for a motive, but I'm talking about good crime novels.) Now, rape only has one motive—someone's a terrible human being. A sexual assault can provide a motive for murder, but, by itself, cannot, in my opinion, prop up a crime novel. There's no psychological depth or complexity. Walter doesn't strive for any. I was left feeling that Holly's life was all very unfortunate, but not a story. But the really maddening thing is that it could have been a story. We could have opened with Earnest's dead body in 2019 and then—either as a traditional series-of-clues whodunnit or perhaps as a law procedural as Holly tries to piece together a defence—discovered that he raped Holly in the nineties. We could have discussed the question of private vengeance, of a justice system that fails victims, of the right to seek redress—the sort of questions asked in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express and Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Abbey Grange'. But no, we don't go there. We stick to the melodrama line.
Because that's essentially what this is—a melodrama. It's the age-old saga of the poor-but-honest girl ruined by the evil aristocrat, very thinly updated. I have a feeling that Walter is trying to crowbar in some sort of social message about how evil men/rich people/rich men are, but frankly, a social message is an optional add-on to a story, not a substitute for writing the damn story. This trashy melodrama balances precariously on the usual range of melodrama stock characters, all of whom could comfortably drop their names for their role titles with no loss. As I think I've mentioned in other essays, I feel that a novel stands or falls on the characters. Even if the plot's dodgy, the book can still be saved. Unfortunately, Walter's casting choices are the final seal of doom on this foundering story.
We have Holly, the Working-Class Girl, a deeply unsympathetic character riddled with insecurities about not fitting in and being mocked for being a virgin. Julianne the American Girl, the Lovestruck Wife Trapped in the Nightmare Relationship with the Monster. Al the Posh Girl. None of these characters have any likeable traits, they're all utterly shallow, stupid people. Julianne is possibly the worst amateur detective in fiction. Holly spends all her time either bitching about how she doesn't like her posh friends, or worrying about her posh friends not liking her. The only even remotely interesting characters are the villains, which is a slight problem, you know? When the sadistic serial rapists are the only three-dimensional plausible characters. These are the Evil Aristocrats of the melodrama. They went from Eton (of course, it's that one public school wheeled out whenever a novelist needs a public school—there are others, you know, just to ring the changes. I'm starting to feel sorry for Eton) to Oxford (the nineties chapters are set at Oxford, Walter asserts, although no clear vision of Oxford is ever presented to the reader—we are transferred from people's halls to a house party to a burger shop; Walter's only mental conception of Oxford seems to be that it's populated exclusively by posh people) and grow up into genuinely scary ruthless sadists. They also have the healthiest relationship of anyone in the novel and are—although they never say so—in love, at least at the start. Julianne's marriage is a fraud. Holly has awkward, virgin-shame sex with her boyfriend because Al will laugh at her otherwise. The genuinely evil people have good, loving, passionate sex. You know, because they're in love. Like normal people. The only good, loving, passionate sex in the novel. That's slightly worrying.
The other characters are Holly's Ambitious and Prudish Working-Class parents, and Julianne's son, (who goes to Winchester—thank God for small mercies) whose only role in the story is to be Imperilled. Even though Holly's parents' prudishness about sex is criticised, it seems that Walter shares their prudishness. You know, because only evil people have good sex. We really are in the grip of a Victorian Morality Saga here.
There are other minor quibbles, such as Walter's inability to capture a location—as mentioned, Oxford seems to be a void with obnoxious inhabitants—but these are pale things compared with the mangled hash of plot and character already discussed. I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone feeling insecure about their abilities as a writer. Because whatever your failings, you can do better than that.
P.S Rachel Rhys' Dangerous Crossing is also pretty dire, but A Version of the Truth beats it hands down.