The Deaths, by Mark Lawson, Picador RRP£14.99, 480 pages
In the bucolic fictional village of Middlebury, Buckinghamshire, four rich couples live in elegant seclusion, each family atop its own hill. “The Eight”, as they style themselves, host dinner parties, take mini-breaks together and the husbands all ride the 6.38 Virgin Pendolino to London each morning, travelling first class, naturally. But this Eden of pony club gymkhanas and weekly spa visits is shattered in the opening pages when the members of one of the families are murdered in their sleep.
The Deaths, Mark Lawson’s dark social satire on the British upper middle classes, skewers with precision this group of rich professionals who have grown fat and well-holidayed during the New Labour boom years but are now coming to a crunch point.
Set during the winter of 2011-12, with a global flu pandemic thrown in for added drama, The Deaths is full of the cultural references one would expect from an author whose day job is presenting BBC Radio 4’s arts show Front Row. Sky-plussing Mad Men, Britain’s coffee craze, tweeting and internet porn all get a mention.
Lawson shows post-crash Britain by focusing remorselessly on the fun and foibles of an elite set whose lifestyles are built on shaky foundations. To keep the action going, he intersects humorous set pieces (dinner parties, shopping trips, sex) with the murder investigation, leaving the reader guessing which family is murdered and why until the very end.
Lawson nails each of his characters with the telling details that make them not necessarily likeable but certainly utterly believable and the book is narrated not by an omniscient voice but in a fluctuating style that adopts the inflections, language and knowing asides of each character in turn. The result, at first, can be irritating: when the 15-year-old daughter of one of the Eight does a day’s work experience at her neighbour’s company it appears as if transcribed direct from her mind with all the “likes” and “whatevers” one expects of a teen.
Yet, once the merry-go-round of the various couples comes into focus, their identities are given greater clarity by Lawson’s prose style, revealing the neuroses they carefully hide from each other.
There is danger inherent in focusing solely on this very rich group: even the policemen searching the house make disparaging comments about the dead family’s lifestyle. The detective in charge realises that “The super rich … are the only victims cops would now risk criticising.”
The Eight are easy targets for satire. Lawson’s skill is to make his characters believable and, despite their odiousness, to make us care about them and their (possibly terrible) fate.