Reviewed by Harriet
Charlotte Vassell’s brilliant debut thriller begins with a dying girl on Hampstead Heath. This, as we discover later, is Clemmie, and she is, or was, an influencer.
She is savvy. Astute. Commercially minded. Clever. She’s clever. She knows that all she really has to sell is the idea of her beauty, her youth, her long rolling vowels, and she does….She believes in self-improvement. She practices her poses and reads her prose. She believes in love and practices that too. She has put so many hours into practicing, hours and hours, tears and tears, and yet…
Nearby, in Kentish Town, a black-tie party is being held at MacDonald’s. The host is Rupert Achilles Courtney Beauchamp (pronounced Beecham, of course), soon to be an earl, whose 30th birthday celebration this is. He’s reserved the whole upper floor, usually open on Saturday mornings for children’s parties, and has paid handsomely for the privilege. There’ll be burgers and chicken nuggets, and the party is BYOC (bring your own coke), so vintage French champagne and cocaine are flowing in equal measures. But Rupert is fretting about his girlfriend Clemmie’s failure to turn up – he wants her to be there so he can dump her and get together with beautiful ‘angry bluestocking’ Nell Waddington. However, Nell – a terrific character, one of the few who sees the milieu in which she moves with total clarity – despite being irresistibly attracted to him, has come to the party to tell him she never wants to see him again. For Rupert is truly a monster, something Nell has very good reason to know. Privileged, entitled, entirely ruthless, he despises anyone not born into his own wealthy Oxford-educated upper class milieu. And Clemmie, as hard as she tried, could never make the cut, as she was middle class and studied at Oxford Brookes, rather than the ancient university itself.
Clemmie’s body is discovered next day, by Detective Caius Beauchamp (pronounced as it’s spelled). Caius is out jogging – he’s been on a quest for self-improvement since he was dumped three weeks earlier by Héloise, ‘a sarcastically eyebrowed Parisienne poet who saw beauty in the oddest things and cruelty in everything’. He’s hoping that if he sticks to his healthy but sadly unappealing diet, his jogging, and his YouTube yoga, he may be able to win her back. Meanwhile, he’s assigned to the case, which is a particularly mysterious one as it turns out that Clemmie was first poisoned and then had her throat cut after her death. And once the time of death is established, all the party guests, including the appalling Rupert, have alibis. But Caius is determined to break through the snobbery and racism he encounters – his father was part Jamaican – and to pin down the perpetrator of this sad and grisly death.
This novel has so much going for it. It’s social satire at its best, fast-paced, ironic, and wonderfully funny. It’s impossible not to see Rupert and his cronies, with their total lack of morality or compassion, as versions of some of our recent leaders, whose youthful antics in the Oxford Bullingdon Club were so brilliantly and shockingly satirised in Laura Wade’s play Posh (2010). And indeed the appallingly entitled men who attend Rupert’s party will undoubtedly be the leaders of tomorrow. It’s also a proper crime novel, of course – a police procedural in which Caius and his team, Amy and Matt, struggle to break through the seemingly impenetrable barriers the wealthy upper classes surround themselves with – ‘Ridiculous gyms, art galleries, auction houses’, not to mention designer drugs – all under the eye of the Chief Superintendent, or ‘grand pooh bahh’, as they refer to him behind his back. The novel teems with literary and classical references and is altogether as intelligent and witty as anyone could ask for. I imagine I’m not alone in looking forward to Caius Beauchamp’s next appearance, if there is one, and surely there must be. Will he get back together with Héloise? Who knows.
Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books.
Read Harriet’s Q&A with Charlotte here.
Charlotte Vassell, The Other Half (Faber & Faber, 2023). 978-0571374939, 368pp., hardback.
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