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Wimbledon has entered cultural immortality in two ways. First, there's a certain tennis tournament that clogs up the District Line for a solid fortnight every June. Then you must, as the song goes, remember you're a womble.
But in the 90s, Nick Williams punctured the twee image of this very English suburb in his vicious black comedy The Wimbledon Poisoner. You may remember this novel from its lavish BBC adaptation that starred Robert Lindsay and Alison Steadman.
Henry Farr, in short, plans to poison his therapy-obsessed wife. And, in the grand tradition of these things, chaotic hijinks ensue.
Henry is no monster, far from it. Apparently he's a nice bloke with a wicked sense of humour. He's an overweight solicitor who doesn't much like his job and who lives with his overweight wife and overweight daughter in a nice house in Wimbledon.
The genius of the novel, in fact, is that you find yourself rooting for Henry throughout, whether he's making sly jokes about his neighbour's obsession with their new Mitsubishi, or planning to slip bleach in the punch at a neighbour's funeral party. It's a delicate balancing act to keep a reader engaged with a cold-blooded murderer, even one as inept as Henry Farr, but Williams manages it well.
Despite its lurid title, The Wimbledon Poisoner is a comedy, and a very funny one. The humour emerges through the characters and Henry's observations of them, rather than jokes as such. It's still laugh out loud funny though, and I was especially amused by Henry's reflections on the shortcomings of poison as a murder weapon towards the end of the book.
Williams writing is highly articulate, and almost exclusively focused on his central character. It's all in the third person, however, which is great as although first person writing tends to faciliate identification with a character, it can also be extremely over-written and flat. By using an omniscient narrator, Williams is able to mix in a lot of Henry's inner monologue with fantasy scenes where Henry imagines his poisoning career being discussed in a future documentary. It's also an elegant way of glossing over the strange gaps in Henry's memory.
This is also a book that works even better if you know the setting. I'd only been living and working in Wimbledon for about six months when I first read the novel, but mentions of the Polka Theatre, or the windmill on Wimbledon Common, not to mention a host of familiar streetnames, all of these elements really ground the work for anyone living within spitting distance from SW19. The restaurants that pepper the book would add to this tremendously but most of them have changed their names or been refurbished in the intervening years (to be honest, most of them seem to have been overhauled at least once in the last six months). Prior to this I'd been stuck with Children of the New Forest and mentions of my home village in a Sherlock Holmes short story and a Doctor Who novel, and let's never forget that homogenous pseudo-London that crops up in a thousand lazy thrillers.
It's tempting to dismiss the book's premise as yet another attempt to expose the repressed passions that rage beneath apparently placid middle-class mundanity. American Beauty did it, Desperate Housewives does it, even I've dipped a toe in the water with Throwing Up With the Joneses. The Wimbledon Poisoner stands distinct by virtue of its sheer viciousness, which frequently sets up ludicrous characters like the psychiatrist that Henry dubs 'Jungian with a winebox' so that the reader becomes complicit with the murderer by gleefully anticipating their gruesome deaths.
The book's other purpose is to serve as an odd eulogy for the passing of the Little Englander. Henry and his friends are all a bit sexist and a bit racist, and as Henry's character develops, he gradually opens his eyes to the more multi-cultural society that's clearly on its way, and he starts to realise that his policeman friend and tormentor is an unpleasant racist bigot. It seems particularly significant that when the whole of Wimbledon is terrified of the poisoner living in their midst, it's the kebab restaurant that becomes incredibly popular (and I'm left wondering whether the restaurant is the one currently called Flame, or Cafe Karahi over the road).
The comedy, the social commentary and the faithful depiction of Wimbledon all make the book well worth a read. Which is just as well, because in its brief attempts at being a mystery novel, it fails utterly. I've been careful to keep plot details to a minimum in this review, but I'm not sure why I bothered. Any half-attentive reader should be able to keep one step ahead of the narrative.
If I had to sum up in a soundbite: 'Evil Reggie Perrin'. As usual, I got it from a charity shop for 50p, but you can pay around £7 for the full price novel.
From the author of Witchcraft and Buttons in the Marsh comes this black comedy about an unsuccessful solicitor who decides to murder his wife, with devastating results.