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Book review: Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Junior government minister James Whitehouse appears to have it all… an Eton and Oxford education, good looks, an easy charm, a flourishing political career, a beautiful wife and two enchanting children.

But when his parliamentary researcher makes a shocking sex allegation, will his high-profile marriage and his job survive the scandal that threatens to engulf them all?

No stranger to the hallowed halls of Oxford University and Westminster herself, former news reporter and political correspondent Sarah Vaughan delivers a blistering psychological mystery thriller, packed with courtroom dramas and moral mazes, and destined to be one of 2018’s most exciting debuts.

Written with a skill and assurance rarely seen in a first novel, Anatomy of a Scandal takes us to the heart of a dark slice of contemporary legal and political noir, a gripping and intensely relevant exploration of the women caught up in an explosive scandal that will pose difficult questions on both sides of the divide.

Sophie Whitehouse is all too aware that her handsome and charismatic husband James might ‘dissemble’ in his job as a government minister but she never imagined that he might have a secret that could detonate her lovingly maintained world and ‘blow it apart forever.’

The affectionate father and successful politician has been accused of raping his blonde, leggy researcher Olivia Lytton in a lift at Westminster shortly after he ended their affair. The case has thrust their high-profile marriage into the spotlight but Sophie is convinced that James is innocent and is desperate to protect her precious children from the lies and the publicity.

A specialist in sexual crimes, Kate Woodcroft is the barrister prosecuting the case. An eminent QC once told her that ‘adversarial advocacy is not really an inquiry into the truth’ but about winning the argument.

And yet Kate still wants to ‘get at the truth’ in all her cases. She is certain that the charming and suave old Etonian James Whitehouse is guilty and for someone who is normally good at remaining emotionally detached, Kate has let this case get under her skin.

Determined that he will pay for his crime and no stranger to suffering herself, she doesn’t flinch from posing difficult questions that few want to hear. But is James the victim of an unfortunate misunderstanding, or the perpetrator of something far more sinister? And who is right about James… Sophie or Kate?

As Sophie takes a close look at her marriage and Kate confronts her demons, this is a scandal that will have far-reaching consequences for them all...

Anatomy of a Scandal is a beautifully executed and superbly controlled thriller, a seductive blend of riveting courtroom action, legal conundrums, and brilliant character studies delivered with the ruthless rigour, penetration and forensic precision of an author displaying the verbal dynamism of a top-flight barrister.

As Vaughan weaves between past and present, and the narratives of the principal players, the secrets and lies that have built up over 25 years start to unravel in spectacular fashion. The thorny issue of sexual consent comes under the microscope, as well as the devastating and enduring emotional fall-out from sex crime cases.

Ultimately, this is the story of a marriage and the fault lines that crack beneath a web of deceit and self-deception, but it is also about revenge, privilege, power and the workings of the justice system.

A classy first act from an impressive new author...

(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £12.99)