Shortlisted for the 2012 Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Crime Novel.

On a dank November day in 1956 DI Ted Stratton is called to a murder scene – a loner has been stabbed in his Soho lodgings. The victim is Jeremy Lloyd, a man with a taste for esoteric religion. Stratton’s enquiries lead him to Suffolk, where the mysterious Mr Roth has created a Foundation for Spiritual Understanding in a house famed for being haunted.

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It seems that Lloyd had believed himself marked out for great things. At the Foundation, Stratton meets Michael, a twelve-year-old boy who has been proclaimed as the next incarnation in a long line of spiritual leaders stretching back to Christ and Buddha. He is rumoured to have been immaculately conceived, but the woman who is said to be his mother, and whose photograph was cherished by Lloyd, has disappeared.

When a woman’s body is found, in woods nearby, Stratton initially assumes he has found her, but the reality turns out to be far stranger and more terrifying.

Writing A Willing Victim

I chose to set the fourth D.I. Stratton novel in 1956, because it was a momentous year in Western politics. In January, John Forster Dulles had made his famous ‘brinkmanship’ speech, in which he advocated playing a nuclear weapons-based game of ‘chicken’ with the Soviets. For the USA’s European allies – sitting targets in any exchange of fire – this was not reassuring. Their mounting fear of nuclear holocaust intensified alarmingly when, in November – when the action of the book is set – the Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary. At the same time, the Suez Crisis marked the end of Britain as a world power. This atmosphere of confusion, doubt and fear, together with the post-war decline in adherence to established religions, provided fertile ground for a bumper crop of gurus of all shapes and sizes, as people sought for certainty in an increasingly uncertain world.

Researching all of the above was fairly straightforward: the usual truffle hunt through history books, contemporary newspapers, magazines, newsreels, novels and films. Researching the ‘alternative’ spiritual organisation – or, if you prefer, cult – was a different matter, because it meant drawing on my own childhood and adolescent experiences and grafting them on to a period before I was born. I grew up in an organisation much like the one I describe in the book, of which my parents were enthusiastic members. In common with other organisations of the type, its leader was a charismatic egotist who had adopted Indian mysticism as a central tenet, along with mediation, chanting in Sanskrit and other esoteric practices. Less common – because this type of thing is usually associated, in the Western mind at least, with free love and flowers in the hair – it espoused stiflingly strict rules governing everything from day-to-day conduct to gender roles. In full-on retreat from the perceived evils of the debased and vulgar modern world, it dictated taste in art, literature and music, with Shakespeare being the last writer and Mozart the last composer worthy of note. With constant evening meeting, ‘duties’ and retreats, it required total commitment from its members and took up a hell of a lot of their time and all of their mental space. In an entirely well-intentioned but, from an academic standpoint, unforgivably amateurish attempt to revolutionise education, it also set up day schools, one of which I attended from the age of twelve to the age of eighteen.

I had never before attempted to write any fiction which drew on this part of my life, and dredging for memories, often with a metaphorical peg on my nose (the zeal of the convert not having been passed down on the hereditary principle), proved a fairly uncomfortable experience. My ‘stand-out’ memory is of myself, aged seventeen, the weekend before I began my A-levels: wearing a floor-length skirt, carrying a tray of tea up a flight of stairs at 4.30am, sand-eyed after five hours’ sleep. I should have been at home in bed but instead I was on a ‘service weekend’ in one of the organisation’s country houses. This wasn’t a novel experience, and neither was the endless housework and laundry that followed (made both arduous and inefficient by the refusal to countenance helpful modern appliances such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines). My friends and I must have had some breaks for revision, because I remember, at some point later on, staring blearily at a textbook.

I was desperate to pass the exams that would enable me to get away to university and freedom, and the recently-mooted idea that the ‘young ladies’ should have arranged marriages to older men gave me extra impetus. Despite constant scrutiny and attempts to micro-manage the lives of the younger members, I did manage to spend happy stolen hours listening to John Peel and reading smuggled-in copies of the New Musical Express. Sitting on the tube in my floor-length Sixth Form tunic, radioactive with embarrassment, I devoured modern novels – one of my favourites, discovered in my bag by a particularly pop-eyed and fanatical teacher and denounced as ‘pornographic’, was Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.

For those, like my parents, who are attracted as adults to such organisations, they provide – or appear to provide – the answers to the questions that most people, at some point, ask themselves: ‘Why am I here? What is the point of it all? What happens when I die?’ and the like. For me, and many others like me, who were born into such organisations, they provide an escalating sense of cognitive dissonance necessitating constant schizophrenic mental oscillation as one attempts to reconcile the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ worlds. The fictional character I most identified with as a child was the Pushmi-pullyu in the Dr Dolittle novels – I knew exactly how frustrated the poor thing must have felt.

I loved my parents dearly, but it was often difficult to relate to them as individuals rather than as human components of all-consuming orthodoxy. I was constantly told, from an early age, how fortunate I was to be in contact with the teachings of a man who was in a higher state of consciousness, with the implication that I must have done something quite wonderful in a previous life (re-incarnation being on the menu, too) to be accorded such a privilege in this one. Confused and, due to the lack of sleep, usually exhausted, I spent half my time wondering if there hadn’t been some hideous cosmic mistake, and the other half feeling like an undeserving fraud. More worryingly, we were also told that those who had been wicked in previous lives were re-born disabled or disadvantaged. I never heard any of the adults question this pronouncement or others like it, and found the resulting atmosphere of serene, intolerant complacency unbearable.

I passed the exams and went to university. Oxford, and the ‘outside’ world in general, proved to be everything that I’d hoped, even if it did take several years to shake off the feeling of having been beamed in from a different planet.

I can’t honestly say that thinking about all of this for an extended period has been therapeutic – if anything, I’d say it was the opposite – but I found myself utterly fascinated by the conditions that gave rise to the inception of such organisations (and there were a lot of them, each one firmly convinced of the uniqueness of its own spiritual ‘hotline’). I was also curious to see what a man such as my protagonist D.I. Stratton – rational, necessarily an upholder of convention and orthodoxy, who after several books seems somehow to have taken on an existence outside my head, making him a psychologically safe viewing platform – would make of it all.

What I have attempted to convey, however clumsily, in A Willing Victim, is that good intentions, whether they be political or spiritual or anything else, really do pave the way to hell, and that people are never more dangerous or – at least 99 per cent of the time – more wrong, than when they are certain that they are right.

© Laura Wilson, 2012

Reviews for A Willing Victim

An intelligent, thought-provoking crime novel with a particularly poignant ending.
Andrew Taylor, The Spectator

A top-notch police procedural
Julia Handford, Sunday Telegraph

An excellent, thought-provoking read.
Jessica Mann, Literary Review

A Willing Victim is a complex, richly-textured novel, beautifully written and asking serious questions about the nature of belief and wilful self-deception. Set in 1956, it uses period detail subtly and accurately. Laura Wilson knows that drivers always started their car by pulling out the choke in the 1950s. She also knows how to craft an outstanding crime novel and produce a hugely satisfying read.
Keith Miles, Shots Crime and Thriller E-zine

Wilson is as adroit at the straight-forward mechanics of the crime mystery as she is at evocative prose shot through with a keen sense of the past.
Barry Forshaw, The Independent

A powerful and disturbing story
Natasha Cooper, Times Literary Supplement

Laura Wilson’s series featuring D.I. Stratton continues to go from strength to strength.
Mark Sanderson, Evening Standard’s Top Holiday Reads of 2012

‘Laura Wilson’s excellent series of novels featuring the avuncular DI Stratton have now reached the year 1956, and this is the best yet… A Willing Victim is a skilful and moving tale of faith and madness, elegantly dressed up as a police procedural.’
John Williams, Daily Mail

‘A Willing Victim is a consistently interesting and often moving novel. It is, moreover, brilliantly written and scrupulously researched. Some historical fiction trades in nostalgia. This does not. Instead it details a period that few of us would willingly return to live in but which we really ought not to ignore.’
Yvonne Klein, Reviewing the Evidence